Eight Things We Loved About Perth:
We opted to stay in the Fremantle neighborhood, just south of Perth. It's a cute, quiet area with a harbor, quirky shops and great restaurants.
2. Little Creatures Brewery
One of the most well known breweries in Australia, Little Creatures is located on the water in Freemantle. We ate dinner here on our first night in WA (West Australia) and couldn't resist going back once more for the FREE beer tasting.
3. Sunday funday with friends
We met Lucy and Jaidan on the Anaconda III, a sailboat that we took around the Whitsunday Islands. They live in Perth, so while we were in town we all met up at Beach Bar in Scarborough for some beers and travel talk. Those two have been all over the world, and they always have great tips to share.
4. Perth skyline at night
Perth isn't a huge city, but it does have an impressive skyline from the right angle. South Perth Park is across the river from the downtown area. After the sun has gone down, as the sky darkens, the city lights begin to reflect on the rippling river. It's a beautiful effect that we were lucky enough to capture on camera!
5. Sleeping in a real bed again
We stayed with a cool couple (via Airbnb) whose guest room had a very comfortable bed. Then again, it could have been that we'd spent the past 12 nights sleeping in the back of a van...
6. Sayers Sister
Oh, hello, brunch. It's good to see you again, my old friend. Another great recommendation from Lucy! (It ALWAYS pays to know a local.) We enjoyed one of the fanciest, tastiest meals of all our time in Australia. I realized as we sat there that it was probably the first time we'd indulged in a proper brunch since we left the States.
7. Meat pies!
This was a favorite throughout Australia, but the pies in Perth were extra special because we knew they'd be our last for a while. (This was more of Grace's favorite than Mike's... he's over the pies.)
To be fair, the above is all that we did in Perth. And three of the eight are meals. We know it’s a big city, and there’s a lot more to see. But, we’ll have to see it next time, because...
8. Perth Airport
Not only is it a very nice airport with some of the fastest unlimited wifi we found in Australia, it's only a four hour direct flight away from BALI!
We're on our way!
The Shark Bay World Heritage site is a large area in WA that includes the westernmost point of the continent, although we didn't make it out that far. Instead, we spent our time within the bay, on the water and driving around the Peron Peninsula. Shark Bay is rich in sea life, most famous for its resident dolphins and one of the world's largest populations of dugongs.
The weather wasn’t great on the day that we drove west and then north, onto the peninsula, headed for Denham. It was a rare grey day in Australia for us - overall, we’d been very lucky with the weather.
We stopped at a few of the points of interest, including Shell Beach, a bay beach covered entirely in tiny, white shells courtesy of cockles. Apparently it's one of only two beaches in the world made entirely from shells! Also worth a stop was the Eagle Bluff viewpoint, a walking path 100 m or so above the western side of the peninsula, where you can spot sharks, turtles and rays in the clear water below. We saw what we think was a small nervous shark, a large shovel nosed ray and ancient looking loggerhead turtle.
When we got to the tiny town of Denham, we realized there wasn’t much to do. A guy we talked to in the visitor centre advised that we go straight to Monkey Mia, 20 km away.
We’d heard about Monkey Mia, a resort property famous for its daily dolphin feeding, during which wild dolphins that live in the bay come in within a few feet of shore to accept the fish offering.
So, we parked the van and boarded a catamaran to go out looking for dugongs. Turns out that it was a bit of a sham, as almost all of the dugongs had already migrated north for the winter. But we did see plenty of big turtles, dolphins, a scary brown sea snake.
We stayed on boat for the sunset cruise, hanging out in the catamaran's netting, finishing off the 12 beers we'd brought on board.
The next morning, we did what many people visit Monkey Mia exclusively to do: we attended the dolphin feeding.
It was definitely touristy, with somewhere around 200 people there to see the dolphins. Luckily, we'd made friends with one of the volunteers the night before, so we had an in. He motioned to us to come up and I was one of four people who hand-fed one of the playful dolphins a fish! (Sadly, the camera settings had been messed up, so we only got blurry photos!)
On the way out, we stopped at the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The sun had finally come out, and the water was so clear you almost couldn’t see that it was there, making it look like the small fish were suspended in the air, their shadows tiny but distinct on the flat sand below.
Coral Bay is even smaller than Exmouth. It's a couple of streets with a few restaurants, two caravan parks, and one kick-ass bakery.
It’s crazy that the area isn't more built up, but thank goodness it isn't, because the reef is protected and thriving.
Yes, the beaches are gorgeous. But the real beauty is below the water's surface.
We got a tip from a few locals, and when the tide was low enough, walked from the main beach around a rocky point and out to Paradise Beach. From there, we aligned ourselves with a marker out in the water (the one with a 5 on it) and started swimming.
It's a unique snorkel, since the first part is the deepest and has the worst visibility. We swam out a hundred meters before hitting the wall of coral. And then, WOW.
Rarely do the photos do it justice. "It" being the place, experience, meal, or whatever. But in this case, compared to what we saw, these photos may as well be of a huge pile of garbage. Maybe they would have been better had we remember the red underwater filter for our GoPro... Alas, I have my work cut out for me. I'll have to try to explain it well enough to paint the picture. (A Sisyphean task.)
As we continued swimming farther out, away from the beach, the coral composition got better and better and better. There were less fish than we'd seen in Exmouth and the Whitsundays but waaay more coral. There were so many kinds, colors, formations. We leisurely glided over the underwater jungle of purple, teal, magenta, pale pink and bright red corals. The colorful corals combined with the bright colors of the fish gave the illusion of being inside a rainbow. I have to admit, "Under the Sea," the iconic tune from The Little Mermaid, was playing in my head. It felt like we had been shrunken and were swimming inside an aquarium's tank. Perfectly designed and executed, every inch accounted for, jam-packed with variety that kept your eyes constantly engaged.
We swam around in awe, taking lots of photos (ugh!) and spotting sea turtles. About 15 minutes after we got out, we went back in and did the entire swim again. It was that good.
We drove into Cape Range National Park after our day swimming with the whale sharks. We’d picked up some cheeses, crackers and salami for dinner. Because we're van people, but we're also classy.
On the road in, we saw an echidna, emus and many euros (smaller kangaroos).
Our campsite turned out to be one of the best ever, only one of five sites, right next to the beach. We watched the sun set and ate dinner. Other than the kangaroos trying to sneak up on us and steal our food, their eyes glowing red like demons in the light from our headlamps, it was perfect.
The next morning, sunrise was just as nice, if not better. It gave the previous night’s sunset a run for its sunmoney!
We drove a bit farther south in the park and hiked the Yardie Creek Gorge, where the river carved through the wild coastal plateau. Grace's first hike wearing two sneakers and no boot! Woot woot!
Then, it was time to snorkel. We drove to Oyster Stacks, which was pretty but we had to swim against a strong current. We didn’t see any sharks or turtles (the two things we’re always hoping to see), so we continued on to the next beach, the famous Turquoise Bay.
There's a reason that Turquoise Bay is consistently ranked among the top ten beaches in Australia. We walked over the dunes and immediately felt we had arrived in heaven.
Turquoise Bay is, in essence, the perfect beach. The beach is striking and vibrant: the turquoise water is perfectly clear, the sand is white and soft, the dune grasses are a calm, neutral shade of green.
It was also quiet, since we’d arrived quite early. A beach this spectacular AND we have it all to ourselves? Yes, please.
I laid on a towel in the sand, perfectly content. I was over not having any cell service and had relaxed into a state of disconnected glee. Meanwhile, Mike the merman went on yet another snorkel.
And then he proceeded to save some people from drowning. No, really.
I was laying in the sun with my eyes closed when I heard a man's strained voice exclaim, “HELP!” Just a single time, almost like he was asking a question. I opened my eyes and sat up, grabbing my top (What? I told you there were no people on the beach!) and as I looked up, I saw Mike quickly wading into the water, toward two people who were hanging onto a pool noodle. They had drifted too far and couldn’t swim out of the strong current to the shore. They were getting sucked out toward the break in the reef.
Mike, being the man-dolphin hybrid that he is, swam over to them, and then reached out, pulling them toward him and out of the dangerous current. The couple were from Perth and were very thankful that he’d rescued them. They thanked him profusely. I was just glad I’d witnessed it!
After that moment of greatness, as Mike basked in the glow of his hero status, we drove out of the park and down toward our next stop in paradise, Coral Bay.
Exmouth reminded us of a post-apocalyptic world where the dust had finally settled and the surviving population had finally gotten its sh*t together and started to rebuild, creating a tropical paradise in a desolate, red-sanded wasteland.
Everywhere you look, there's orange-red, dusty sand. Throw in the sporadic palm tree and a beautiful coastline, and you have Exmouth (as well as greater northern WA...).
You drive in after hours on the bush-flanked highway and think, "where are we??" ...And then you get to the water.
The water in Exmouth, which envelops the spectacular Ningaloo Reef, is beautiful, turquoise and very clear. (We'd heard it one-upped the GBR and, after seeing both, we'd have to agree!)
We’d picked up a map in the visitor centre and saw that there was a surf beach. On the way to check it out, Mike said, “what if this is just like a perfect, overhead paradise wave.” I smiled, hoping there would at least be some swell.
Well, we arrived and it was exactly what he’d hoped it would be. Clear water breaking off the rocky shore.
Apparently there hadn’t been a decent swell for a year?! Talk about right place at the right time.
After surfing, we headed to the caravan park where we’d stay for the night. We swam in the pool while our laundry ran and then drank beers next to the van while it dried. Van life isn’t so bad.
The next day, we were picked up by the tour group that would take us out to swim with whale sharks. We already knew that swimming with whale sharks is amazing after our less-than-ideal experience in Philippines. So, we were taking a second crack at it.
This time, it would be responsible, aiding in conservation efforts for the massive fish. Unfortunately, because we're still in Australia, that also came with a hefty price tag.
Our first stop of the day was the inner Ningaloo Reef for a snorkel, mainly to test out the rented equipment before jumping in with the sharks.
Then, it was finally time!
Because they’re not feeding them or anything, the sharks don’t come to you, you have to find them. Luckily, there are spotter planes flying above that see the whales and let the boats know where to go.
We found one quickly, in the first five to 10 minutes, and before we knew it, we were sitting on the back platform of the boat about to jump in. Unlike the whale sharks we'd seen in Philippines, these were healthier and faster. They were all juveniles, about 4-7m long. That sounds big, until you realize that whale sharks can grow up to 12 m long! Those are the ones we hope to run into on a future dive.
It was wonderful swimming with three different wild whale sharks. (Key word: wild!) We also saw a bunch of dolphins, a few green sea turtles and a giant manta ray from the boat.
Overall, a great day out on the water that made Exmouth an even more memorable stop.
All underwater photos taken by MJ of Little Wave Photography - check her out!
A brief disclaimer for anyone trying to keep up with us: we're posting all of these galleries after the fact, since wifi was all but nonexistent in northern WA (where we spent most of our time). The important thing to note is that we logged a lot of miles in WA. A lot of 'em. When we left Margaret River in the late afternoon, we drove to Perth, stopped at Target to buy a mattress pad (lifesaver) and then got dinner at Little Creatures Brewery before continuing to drive north. We were on the road another few hours, and slept in a rest stop just south of Cervantes.
The next morning, I woke up to the sensation of the bed moving. I opened my eyes and my first thought was, “oh my god, I've been kidnapped.”
And then my second thought was, “oh, no wait, we’re living in this van.”
#whoami #notkidnapped #justhomeless
Mike had woken up early and started driving so we could be at the Pinnacles for sunrise.
The Pinnacles Desert is an area of limestone formations within Nambung National Park. Weathered rocks, eroded over time to thin spires, emerge from deep yellow - almost orange - sand. The marigold color of the sand was striking - it looks like the entire ground is covered in turmeric powder.
The whole area seems so barren, it's shocking to realize you're mere miles from temperate, turquoise coastline.
Basically, it looks like Mars, which is a great backdrop for sunrise photos. We walked around in the morning light. The sun hadn’t popped over the horizon yet, so the air was nice and cool.
We spotted a kangaroo eating some bushes for breakfast and watched him until he took off, gliding smoothly, soundlessly across the open area to an embankment on the other side.
Not a bad way to start the day.
There are two reasons we were drawn to Margaret River: waves and wine.
Our first stop in West Australia (which everyone calls WA) did not disappoint!
It turns out that Margaret River isn't simply a town, it's an entire region, stretching from Busselton (two and a half hours south of Perth), 92 km to Cape Leeuwin.
Although the beautiful region deserves at least a week, we saw everything (at least on our list) in 24 hours. How, you ask? Motivation.
We only have 14 days on the west coast and damn it, we're going to make them count!
We stopped to see Busselton's famous jetty - the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere - and enjoyed flat whites at the beach cafe.
Finally, we arrived at the Margaret River river mouth in time for sunset. The Pro Tour stops here, but conditions weren’t great so there were no surfers in the water. It's also a great place to watch the sunset, so we did just that before finding some dinner and settling into the van for our frist night. (That's right, everyone who knows Grace, we slept. in. the. van.)
We woke up the next day a bit sore but more or less rested - we’d need to work on the bedding situation!
But a couple of yawns couldn't stop us. We were super excited to be in Margaret River. There is so much to explore... and eat!
Since we were cramming all the goodness into one day, we drove to Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, stopping only at an old water mill. I've always been charmed by tidal pools, and when we peered into those on Cape Leeuwin, we were greeted by some cool crabs with green patterns.
After leaving Cape Leeuwin, we drove through the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, where sunlight streamed in, through, and around the thin, papery tree trunks. Along the way, we checked out a local gallery, as well as Lake Cave, famous for one of the world's most unique cave formations, the suspended table.
We continued north, stopping periodically to take photos of the gorgeous vineyards. For lunch, we chose an olive oil farm that was serving delicious Italian food. It turned out that we were there at just the right time, freshly pressed lemon-infused olive oil had just been opened and they poured us each a small cup. The golden cloudy liquid was rich, smooth, peppery, and one of the most incredible things I've ever tasted. They told us that the oil would turn clear after a short time; the cloudiness and melted-butter-consistency showed just how fresh it was.
We popped by Gracetown (had to), but there wasn't much there to see beyond another surf wave.
Our last stop was a chocolate factory with free samples. Hallelujah.
I'm truly sorry we didn't get any photos of the delicious food, wine, and other treats we ate in Maragaret River! You'd think that after nearly 10 months, I would have learned to remember to snap a photo before indulging. But no. Sigh...
In summary, although words don't do it justice, Margaret River is like Napa on the coast. We totally loved it.
We left content but a bit sad we didn’t have more time there. We've promised ourselves that we’ll definitely go back!
Leigh and Rob graciously offered to host us for our last few nights on the east coast before we were scheduled to fly west to Perth.
We leisurely explored "Brissy" (pronounced briz-ee), riding the river ferry from New Farm Park to South Bank (where they have a mini, manmade beach) and then walking over the Goodwill Bridge and into the downtown area.
For a few different perspectives of the city, we went up to Rob's office balcony and looked out at the city at night, braved the cold at Mount Coot-tha to see the entire skyline and stopped by Kangaroo Point Cliffs lookout on our last day in town. Brisbane is hillier than we realized, making for tons of great views.
But most of all in Brisbane, we enjoyed hanging out with our friends and seeing where they live and work.
A group of us went to dinner at a restaurant on the riverbank, which surprisingly felt European - our friends explained that after a massive flood a few years back, the entire area was rebuilt and refurbished. We also went to not one but two "American" restaurants - a BBQ joint for lunch and a fun NYC-themed bar where we jammed out to an amazing jewish mariachi band. (I'm still not sure if we were subconsciously homesick or if American is all the rage in Brisbane's bar/restaurant scene...)
After a couple of days, it was time to continue on, heading to the airport and boarding our flight to WA.
Byron Bay is a beautiful beach town just two hours south of Brisbane. We kept hearing about how small and laid back it was but, coming from tiny Coolangatta, it was much more happening than we expected!
Byron has plenty of restaurants, bars, surf stores, grocery and liquor stores. It felt a bit touristy in the center, with more than a few souvenir shops and backpackers, but as a vacation destination for Australians and foreigners alike, that's to be expected.
We were excited to meet up with old friends Rob and Baz as well as soon-to-be new friends, Rob's lovely girlfriend Leigh and Baz's roommate Jason, a South African who was eager to indulge our stories.
Rob, who lived in Denver for a few years but now lives in Brisbane, rented a house for all of us for the weekend. Since we were the first to get there, we unpacked a bit and then bought beers and snacks, excited to have an entire house to ourselves after weeks in shared hostel rooms.
Then we checked out the main beach as well as a nearby surfing beach, which had some nice sets rolling in but was also verrry crowded. Mike caught a few before we went back to the house to welcome the rest of the gang.
We spent the night catching up, swapping stories, playing drinking games, and laughing a lot.
The rest of the weekend followed suit. We logged more hours at the beach and motivated ourselves to hike 12 km to the Byron Lighthouse. (I put the boot back on for that!)
Three days quickly came and went. On Monday, we were leaving Byron to spend the last of our days on the east coast of Oz with Rob and Leigh in Brisbane.
Coming from the north, the drive in to Gold Coast feels like driving into Miami, with high rise condo buildings shooting out from the otherwise flat city, all trying to get a view of the beach. There's even a town there called Miami! We drove through the Gold Coast, stopping to check out Surfer’s Paradise and the Burleigh Heads before rolling into Coolangatta.
The town was on our radar because of - you guessed it - good surf! Best known as Snapper Rocks (the name of the surf spot), Coolangatta also boasts a spectacular beach, wide with fluffy sand and views of Gold Coast in the distance. I relaxed in the sun (sans boot!) while Mike played around on Mick Fanning’s home wave. It was honestly one of my favorite beaches of all those we’ve seen in the last eight months.
The ocean water was so clear that we could see the power behind the forming waves through the rolling water before the waves broke, splashing up warm, white, bubbling water that spread itself out onto the flat shore.
Compared to most of the Gold Coast, Coolangatta is quite small. We discovered that there was one hostel in town, which luckily had a bit of space left. Hotel Komune is an old apartment building turned into a hostel. There’s still the pool, hot tub, bar and lounge area out front, all looking out on the beach. It felt more like a boutique hotel, aside from the cockroaches in our room. But, it had an ocean view, so who cares about a few bugs! (A british guy we met killed them for us…)
Shortly after driving eight straight hours from Port Douglas to Airlie Beach, we boarded a 100 ft sailboat, setting out on a three-night journey around the Whitsunday Islands.
We've had good luck with boat trips so far this year and this sailing adventure was no exception. I'm not sure what it is, but Mike and I both tend to be happier when we're on the water.
It's probably the lack of a schedule, the forfeit of control, all the sun, reading and general relaxation time, but I digress...
We were lucky to have a lovely French couple as our cabinmates and met many other wonderful people from around the world over the course of the few days.
Along the way to the outer Great Barrier Reef, we stopped at the magnificent Whitehaven Beach. While I sunned myself, Mike hiked to an island viewpoint. The view was nothing special, but he was able to capture some great close-ups of bright butterflies and some creepy crawlies on the path.
Every morning on board the Anaconda III, we enjoyed waking up before sunrise and watching the sky grow lighter, hearing nothing but the water lapping at the sides of the boat. Each night, we sat with new friends, chatting and laughing as we all watched sunset from the deck, gently rocking from side to side. Once the sun went to sleep, the cooler breezes coupled with icy condensation dripping off beer bottles onto bare legs offered relief for hot, sunburnt skin.
The time spent sailing between points of interest was blissfully free. We read books, laid on the deck and took photos of the freakishly pretty surroundings.
When we reached Bait Reef, Mike went on a few scuba dives, while I opted to snorkel. After six weeks in the moon boot, simply being able to get in the water and snorkel was exhilarating!
(Update on my foot injury, for anyone who cares: the healing process was slow and steady. Finally, this trip was the beginning of my weaning myself off the infamous boot! So, these are some of the last photos where you'll see the boot in action. Good riddance!!)
The divers saw a few reef sharks while the rest of us saw plenty of fish closer to the surface. Because of the way that the reef is formed (at least in this particular area), some coral bommies come within a few feet of the surface. They're so close, in fact, that it's too shallow to swim over them during low tide! Although some parts of the GBR are unfortunately bleached, the parts that we saw were nothing but a crazy beautiful rainbow variety of fish and corals.
Escaping our "routine" for a few nights and sailing was the perfect way to experience the Whitsunday Islands.
After three days, we disembarked, reluctantly put our shoes on, and got back in our rental car. We were on the road again, but more relaxed and with a much better tan.
Just when the eastern coast of Australia had started to feel a bit repetitive, we got to Daintree, a real-life Ferngully of lush, vine-draped jungle. The Daintree Rainforest, the oldest in the world, is essentially floor-to-ceiling green with spots of brilliant blue and yellow fluttering by and the occasional fuzzy brown spot, either a wallaby foraging on the ground or speckled flying foxes circling above.
The entire place feels so alive. The bugs buzzing create a constant, gentle background noise. Birds chirp and chatter above. Vines and branches move rapidly back and forth in the wind, sails swiveling on their masts to find the best access to sunlight and precious drops of rain that escaped capture in the vast canopy above.
Daintree National Park is only an hour-ish north of Port Douglas, which is an hour north of Cairns. We opted to stay in Port Douglas both because it is smaller and less rowdy than Carins and because of its proximity to Daintree. Looking back, that was definitely the right call.
Within our first 15 minutes in the park, we saw two cassowaries walking across the road and into the woods. Cassowaries are equally beautiful and funny looking, with bright blue and red coloring on their heads as well as horn-like helmets made of bone, which can be deadly if they attack.
It's rare to see cassowaries, even though they're native to the region, because they're an endangered species, with as few as 2,000 estimated to remain today. Oh, and cassowaries are BIG. They're the third largest living bird behind the ostrich and emu, both of which we've seen in the wild this year.
Somehow we always seem to get lucky with rare wildlife! (Remember our leopard encounter, you guys??)
After our exciting cassowary sighting, we continued to explore Daintree, checking out the sandy beaches (minding the "beware of crocodiles" signs) and going on a few short hikes through mangrove forests. Along the way, we saw some huge spiders and tons of colorful tropical flowers.
After a day under the palms and ferns, we rode the ferry across the river and drove back to Port Douglas to hang out for the night. The next day, Mike would go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef! (Still injured, Grace sat this one out but would be back in the water soon enough!)
The Great Ocean Road is a 243 kilometer route that wraps around the south-eastern coast of Australia and offers spectacular views of the Tasman Sea. It's no wonder that the entire stretch is on Australia's National Heritage List.
Our first stop was the town of Torquay, also known as the gateway to the Great Ocean Road and home to Bells Beach (which we already knew we loved).
Fueled by delicious fish tacos, we continued on to Apollo Bay. Enjoying magnificent ocean views as we went, we took our time on the winding, single lane highway.
Once we arrived, we hung out, watched the sunset and ate a delicious lobster roll from a small takeaway restaurant right on Great Ocean Road, which serves as the main street through quiet Apollo Bay.
The next day, we got back on the road for some more tourist-ing. Easily the highlight of the second day was The Twelve Apostles, a grouping of offshore limestone rock stacks. Because they're close to the shore and clumped together, the area makes for great photos and is popular with tourists.
We also stopped at a few more viewpoints, including a lighthouse and dry saltwater lake bed.
Sadly, that concluded the Great Ocean Road drive. (Did you think that it went all the way to Adelaide?! We did too!)
That night, we stayed in Warrnambool, a town bigger than you'd think. It was raining and Warrnambool has a small movie theater, so I'm sure you can guess what we did that afternoon...
We spent one more night on the road in a beachside town called Robe. And then, before we knew it, we were crossing the state line into South Australia and closing in on Adelaide.
Two words: Fairy. Penguins.
St Kilda is a waterfront 'hood that's known as Melbourne's "beachside playground." But never mind how charming the area is, because when I heard about the fairy penguin colony, we were obviously going.
It was only a 15 minute drive from our Airbnb, so one evening, after we got back into town from Bells Beach, we headed to St Kilda for sunset.
Sunset is the best time to see the little penguins (also called fairy penguins, just adding to the cuteness), since that's when they return from the sea to their rocky cave nests within St Kilda's breakwater.
We arrived with an hour to spare, so we took our times snapping photos of St Kilda's harbor, through which you could see the lights of Melbourne starting to glow in the darkening twilight. Then, we made our way to the small beach and boardwalk constructed for penguin viewers. The platform sits elevated about a foot off the ground... which is all the room that the little guys need to waddle under.
Much to our delight, a few of the cuties were already at the breakwater. (I'm not sure if they got back from work early that day or had never left in the first place since, sadly, penguins can't speak English.)
They peeked out at us from within the rocks with their pale blue eyes, which perfectly complimented their deep blue plumage.
As the last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon, we scanned the water for tiny heads or ripples. We saw a few and watched the little mermaid birds (merbirds?) glide in just beneath the water's surface. They soared effortlessly through the calm water, their tiny wings outstretched, before quickly springing from the water and waddling into the rocks and out of sight.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: anyone who has ever said that penguins can't fly has never seen them swim.
Ahh, Bells Beach. We liked it so much, we went twice!
But we only surfed it once. (And by "we," I mean Mike.)
Because we checked ahead and saw that there would be waves in Bells while we were in Melbourne, Mike, mom and I took a day trip to the beach.
Only two hours by car, Bells Beach is yet another stop on the WSL Pro Tour and one of the most famous surf breaks in the world.
When we got there, the waves were twice as big as we expected - easily overhead - and there were a metric buttload of surfers in the water.
While Mike surfed, I practiced my surf photography skillz.
A short while later, we went searching for fish tacos for lunch. And oh boy, did we find some. The fish tacos at Fisho’s in Torquay (the small town closest to Bells) are outstanding. If you're ever within a two mile radius, do yourself a favor and go try them.
Once we'd stuffed ourselves with tacos and charred corn, we shopped a bit (thanks, mom!) in a few of the surf stores like Rip Curl and Billabong.
Later in the same week, once we'd bid my mom farewell and left Melbourne in the rearview mirror, we stopped in Bells again. This time, the waves were much smaller, so Mike stayed out of the water, but we couldn't resist getting more of those magical fish tacos. (Even better the second time, I swear.)
After five glorious days, our road trip had come to an end and we had arrived in Australia's second largest city, Melbourne.
Melbourne has a lot of character. It's undeniable. You see it in the many public art installations, the eye-catching architecture, and the diverse group of people walking the streets.
An experienced people-watcher, I noted the businesswomen in power suits paired with metallic loafers, chefs with bags of bread and flour on their black pants, nannies with toddlers, heavily pierced girls working in vintage stores, older couples strolling slowly hand in hand, and plenty of teenagers whizzing by on skateboards.
Although Melbourne overall seemed more relaxed than the worker beehive we witnessed in Sydney, there were still a fair share of commuters walking the streets. I watched them and realized that I was slightly envious that they lived in such an interesting place.
Melbourne's famed laneways are a world of their own. Getting lost in the narrow, colorful alleys (as we'd call them in the U.S.) is delicious, both literally and figuratively. Many laneways contain small restaurants and shops. Some are simply packed full, with tiny tables set out on their cobblestone streets, emanating a very European vibe. Others contain no storefronts at all, only layers of street art on every paintable inch, including the ground and any litter on it.
Each laneway had its own bit of mystery to offer. From awesome art to funky nightclubs, they're all unique, so you never know what you’re going to find. I strongly recommend spending a day exploring as many as you can.
The entire city is very walkable, but if your feet get sore (or you're STILL wearing a moon boot), there's a convenient free tram route within the central business district (CBD).
In the CBD, we enjoyed the laneways, great shopping and even better Greek food. We found ourselves at the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and couldn't resist taking a ride. Charming Carlton was the perfect neighborhood to grab a cheap dinner and browse through bookstores. St Kilda offered a magical few hours with teeny, tiny penguins.
The National Gallery Victoria deserves a special shout out. It was truly one of the best museums I've ever visited. We went to see the Warhol // Wei Wei exhibit, which we were lucky enough to catch in its final days. It was a very cool exhibit, perfectly at home within the very cool, lofty, inspiring space.
Overall, we'd consider Melbourne is a definite highlight in Australia. It's home to an eclectic group of people, delicious restaurants, entrancing galleries, shops, events and more... you never know what you'll find, but I bet you you'll leave with a story or two.
I didn't think anything could, but sunrise in Metung actually rivaled the stunning sunset we'd seen the night before. If there are people out there hunting the best sunset and sunrise locations in the world, please contact us. We have some recommendations to share!
In the morning, after photographing the sunrise, we drove straight to nearby Paynesville to catch the ferry to Raymond Island. The ferry ride, which we had read online took about five minutes, actually took all of 90 seconds to cross a channel that couldn't have been more than 100 meters wide. (Oh, and it's free!)
Once we stepped off the ferry onto teeny-tiny Raymond Island, we started off on the "Koala Trail," in search of the furry grey bears. Raymond Island is a haven for koalas and other endemic species. It has been called "one of the best places in the world to see koalas" and it did not disappoint. Within minutes on the island, we spotted our first koala, snoozing up in a tree, as they do.
We continued on, heads bent back so we could scan the manna and red gum trees for more grey furballs. At one point, we heard a deep grunting sound that could have been mistaken for a pig. We followed the noise to an unsuspecting koala, who stopped as soon as he noticed us watching him. (Our completely unqualified opinion is that he was making a mating call. But we're not biologists so we really have no idea.)
We continued slowly walking, stopping whenever we saw any koalas to take photos and observe them. To our delight, we realized that koalas are not like other animals we've met along our journeys, who have often been elusive, skittish, or hard to photograph. Because they just chill out in trees all day, photographing koalas is relatively easy, as long as you're able to catch a few awake and get a good angle.
Eventually, we were back at the ferry port, after seeing more than 20 koalas, five kookaburras, a kangaroo and a tiny owl. It was so cool seeing all of those animals in the wild, instead of in a zoo. If you're in the area, a stop at Raymond Island is a must!
We decided to drive straight from Eden to Metung, since it was one of our longer drives and we thought it would be nice to get there early and enjoy the town a bit.
But we couldn't resist making one beach stop. Right before Lakes Entrance, Mike saw a sign for Tyers Beach that said "surfing beach," and he immediately pulled off to check it out.
So we all took a look down at the beach, saw sets rolling in, and decided to stay. At the parking lot, we discovered a waterfront cafe tucked back in the dunes. We enjoyed a quick lunch of fish tacos there before walking out to the beach and settling in.
The waves were small but since there were no other surfers in the water, Mike was able to play around, catching whatever he wanted, while I tested out the new camera.
On the last night of our four-night road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, we stayed in Metung. With a population of barely 1,200, it was the tiniest of the small, waterfront towns on our itinerary.
Metung is as adorable as you'd expect, and because it's located within the Gippsland Lakes, there's water everywhere you look. We sat at a picnic table with wine, cheese and crackers to chat and watch the sunset.
While the sun made its way down, the sky morphed from pale pink to neon orange with some sporadic swirls of reds and yellows slowly bleeding in, appearing unnoticeably and disappearing again without a trace. A small boat dragged a waterskier gliding over the water, emanating ripples so that all of the colors danced atop the water surface like oil paints bleeding together on a palette.
We woke up in Narooma, drank flat whites (now a morning ritual) and got back in the car. Although we hoped to take a boat out to Montague Island to see seals and penguins, it ended up being too last minute. Without dwelling on the missed opportunity, we headed on towards Mystery Bay.
Mystery Bay turned out to be one of the most gorgeous beaches I've ever seen. Not only was it stunning, with fluffy sand and big, gargoyle-y rocks coming up from the clear blue water, we were the only people on the beach. We walked for a while, stopping to peek into tide pools walled in by rocks.
Before we left, we climbed up over the biggest rock pile and saw some seals in the water on the other side. It was only a few, and they were acting strangely, swimming in circles around one seal, its fin straight up in the air, bobbing there lifeless. I was half expecting to see one of the seals go flying, a victim of an underwater surge attack a la Shark Week, but it didn't happen, and we didn't have time to watch seals all day!
So, we drove to the historic town of Tilba, and unexpectedly fell in love with it. Well, at least two of us did. (Hint: old houses, antiques, wildflowers and afternoon tea tend to be more of a "girl thing.")
The entire town, which is basically one road, has been more or less preserved, so walking down the quaint street feels like stepping back in time. It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for strolling along, stopping to shop in a few of the old houses-turned-stores, many with merchandise set out on their wrap-around porches for browsing.
The jewel of Tilda is its acclaimed cheese factory, which has also been there for more than 100 years. Out of obligation (yeah, right), we bought some cheese, as well as crackers and quince paste because we're not savages, and sat at picnic table in the shade to chow down. The only thing left to do was enjoy a classic Australia (by way of the English) "cuppa" aka afternoon tea. It was truly lovely.
Finally, after over an hour in Tilba, we allowed Mike to drive us all away and onto Bergamui. We were excited to see the Blue Pool, another famous salt water swimming pool, and we did, but unfortunately it was too windy and cold to take a dip! All the wind also meant that the pool water wasn't flat. When it is, you can see to the bottom and the more greeny-turquoise color next to the deeper blue of the ocean is breathtaking. Oh, well. If my only regret is not seeing the Blue Pool during peak conditions, I think I'll be just fine.
Later in the afternoon, after another successful day on the road, we arrived in Eden. When we discovered that our little rental house had a full kitchen, we decided to make tacos for dinner.
Tacos, yet another picturesque sunset over a harbor, and in bed before 10pm. I'm seeing a trend emerging…
On Day 2 of our first road trip down under, we woke up in Greenwell Point and headed for Jervis Bay, detouring slightly to drive out to Honeymoon Bay and Point Perpendicular Lighthouse first. It was on the road within the Beecroft Weapons Range where we saw our first kangaroos in the wild. We were all very excited. Little did we know we'd be getting up close and personal with their cousins later that day...
We stopped in Huskisson for breakfast and to walk around a bit. Then we headed to one of Jervis Bay's beaches, most famous for super white sand. We didn't expect the water to be so turquoise - it looked like we had suddenly teleported to the Caribbean.
We stopped again for meat pies and to check out yet another surf store sale in Ulladulla. Then, finally, we got to Pebbly Beach! If you've never heard of it, Pebbly is the home of the famous surfing kangaroos. No, they don't actually go in the water but there is a thriving resident 'roo population and we're happy to report that they're very friendly!
As we walked down to the beach, we met an Aussie feeding the kangaroos sunflower seeds. Before we could object, he had filled our hands and one of the little guys was grabbing at us to get to the seeds. After he'd eaten a few handfuls, he was more than happy to sit and pose for a few photos. My mom was a bit more wary, but still got close enough for a good photo. (I love the way it looks like they're both looking at each other, feeling it out!)
After we'd mingled with the locals, Mike broke out his new toy, a surfboard he'd picked up as we left Sydney, and headed into the surf to test it out.
It had been a long day in the sun, so we drove through Batemans Bay and arrived in Narooma with minutes to spare before a sunset. It was a beautiful end to a very fun day.
After five action-packed, in-bed-by-10pm days in Sydney, it was time to begin the next leg of our journey through Australia: a road trip to Melbourne.
Since we'd be sticking to the coast, the total trip would be just over 1,000km - about 13 hours of driving, not including side trips. We gave ourselves four nights and five days, which we hoped would be enough time to experience all of the sights along the way.
We started our drive through the Royal National Park, cruising through dense forest and stopping at the Stanwell Tops to take in the stunning coastal views. A few hang gliders were taking off and a small crowd had gathered to watch them leap into the air and soar around.
From there, we zipped across Sea Cliff Bridge, which wraps and winds dramatically around sheer cliffs, suspended over the cold, clear water below.
As we passed through a strip of cute, small towns, we noticed a theme: at least one bakery, beach, and surf store in each, all of the latter with a tempting "SALE" sign out front, since it's autumn now in Australia.
The most fun stop on this day was probably Kiama, known best for the Kiama Blowhole. We walked around for 30 minutes or so, watching for the spray of salt water from within the rocks, and cheering along with other onlookers when it shot particularly high.
When we got to Greenwell Point, an adorable fishing village in the Shoalhaven region, we checked into our motel and walked down to the harbor to watch sunset with the pelicans. Of course, their harbor was much smaller than Sydney's. (The pelicans, however, were a bit bigger.)
With a population of only 1,200 people, Greenwell Point was also much quieter, especially true on a Tuesday night. We chose from three (yes, three) open restaurants for dinner, and ate like locals at an "all you wish to eat" pizza and pasta night.... We figured we should carbo-load before our second day of driving.
From the Dazed and Confused surfer vibe at Bondi Beach to the remote relaxedness of Palm Beach, the beaches that surround Sydney make the city even more special and that much more appealing (especially for two kids who'd been living in landlocked state for a few years...).
We loved Bondi so much that we went twice, both times walking along the rocky bluff, looking down as waves crashed into the famous Icebergs salt water pool - one of many in Sydney - and back across at the wide, soft-sanded shore. Bondi's entire cement retaining wall is covered in colorful spray-painted artwork, from intricate graffiti tags to splattered abstract works, each more intriguing than the last.
Palm Beach is a farther drive but worth it for the views and to have your pick of waves. Freshwater Beach, next to Manly, is just big enough, perfect for families when the water is calmer, and also has its own salt water pool, which is arguably more awesome than Bondi's and much less crowded.
In addition to salt water lap pools, at many beaches, a skate park and/or playground is not far away, making them an ideal spot to hang out whether you're a surfer, skater, beachcomber, sunbather or some combination of them all.
The trend of beaches with personality continues all up and down Australia's east coast, and we're looking forward to seeing - and surfing - more of them in the coming weeks...
With five full days to spend in Sydney, we were looking at one of the longest stretches in a single city, and we were psyched! In case we needed any additional ammo in our arsenal of excuses for "touristing hard," my mom Lynn had flown all the way from the beautiful, foreign land of New Jersey, so we were going to do it all while in Australia's most famous city.
So naturally, we went to the famous Taronga Zoo! Our friends and Sydney-born-and-raised locals Alex and Matt had met up with us at the Sydney Fish Market earlier that day and decided to come along to the zoo as well.
Travel tip: one of the best things about Taronga Zoo is its location. Take the 12 minute ferry ride across to enjoy AH-MAZING views of the harbor and the Opera House as you cruise into and/or out of Circular Quay, the city's main harbor port.
The zoo has so many animals, from elephants and giraffes to native species like emus, kangaroos and koalas. We took tons of photos, but these are the highlights. How cute is that baby gorilla?!
Even though we'd see many of Australia's most famous critters in the wild in the coming weeks, we just couldn't wait. There was one animal in particular that I had been waiting my whole life to see in person. (Anyone who knows me knows it was the PLATYPUS!) It was dark in the platypus building, so we don't have photos! But no worries, it's just an excuse to seek out at least one more platypus encounter before we leave Australia!
We're always excited to arrive in a new place. But we were SO excited to arrive in Australia. We've both dreamed of visiting "Oz" since we were young. And now we have 5-6 weeks (not sure when we're leaving yet) to travel around the country experiencing the best of its cities, beaches and a little bit of the bush in-between.
We started out with a bang in Sydney by cruising around the world's most famous harbor. In the days that followed, we walked all over the city, from the Royal Botanic Gardens to Potts Point and the Queen Victoria Building to Sydney's Fish Market.
Our little Airbnb apartment in Woolloomooloo was the perfect jumping off point as we logged mile after mile on foot. And it was only a 15 minute walk from the Opera House! So we had no excuse to not photograph it day and night, from every possible angle. It's sort of a requirement when visiting Sydney, right?
Oh, and it gets better. Here are two more reasons I'm thrilled to be in Australia:
1. My mom is here!!!!! After eight months apart, we celebrated our reunion with a continuous hug that lasted approximately 36 hours.
2. I've reunited with a long lost best friend from high school, Alex, who's originally from Sydney and moved back before college. It was wonderful seeing her and catching up (luckily her memory is much better than mine!).
If the first few days in Sydney are any indication of the weeks to come, we're in for an amazing time down under.
A question that has been asked by millions of travelers before us (and will likely be asked by millions after us): What's the best way to experience Sydney's famous harbor?
The answer, we discovered, is simple: get out on the water. Whether it's the ferry to Manly (Sydney's "unofficial harbour tour") or a private charter, a boat is ideal to take in the grand scale of what is arguably the world's most beautiful natural harbor.
Sailing through Sydney Harbour provides a perspective that is obviously impossible to find on land.
When looking for a unique harbor experience, it helps to have a friend with a captain's license! Our old pal Martin, who lived in Sydney for seven years before moving to Denver, hired a boat for six hours so we could go "yachting," or sailing.
We had a lot to be excited about. My mom had arrived the day before, and it was the first time any of us (other than Martin) had seen Sydney. Mike had decided it was finally time to graduate to a new kit, and purchased a Sony A6300 mirrorless camera. Our day on the water was his first time feeling out its abilities. With multiple passes by the Sydney Opera House, I can't imagine a better place to test out a new camera! It was also Mike's first time on a sailboat, and my first time in 15 years, so we were eager to watch Martin and see what it took to man such a vessel. You know... just in case. :-)
Despite grey skies and a few rain clouds, there was very little wind. Although that doesn't make for great sailing, it meant that the water was incredibly flat. As we cruised through the smooth, deep blue water, we gazed around at the other boats and impressive houses on the waterfront. For anyone who enjoys checking out architecture (or, most simply, rich people's houses), it's a treat.
Another bonus was choosing what to see and for how long we wanted to stay, such as dropping anchor in Rose Bay to eat the sandwiches we'd brought along for lunch.
Even grey skies and minimal wind couldn't get us down with such spectacular views everywhere we looked. Once back on land, we walked through Wendy's Secret Garden and snapped some photos of a few of Sydney's local city birds, the rainbow lorikeets. With their bright rainbow plumage, they're much better to look at than the dingy pigeons we're used to in the U.S.!