Friday, June 28, 2019

Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Loch Ness, Isle of Skye)


After reading rave reviews of Isle of Skye, Scotland kept jumping up on my travel list. Now that we were going to UK for the cricket world cup, I was all excited to go to Scotland for a few days before our England trip. So here we were. 
Our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in Manchester -> Train to Edinburgh
Day 1: Edinburgh
Day 2: Drive: Edinburgh -> Inverness -> Loch Ness
Day 3: Drive: Isle of Skye
Day 4: Drive: Portree -> Fort Williams -> Edinburgh
Day 5: Edinburgh -> London

When to go:


We got really lucky with the weather. There were no rains. Was cloudy and sunny mostly and we got a little bit of drizzle in Isle of Skye. From what I hear, you hit rains around 90% of the time, so we did well I believe. Even though it was summer, it wasn't hot. We had to use light jackets and full sleeves shirts to feel comfortable. It gets hotter in July-August though. And I am sure the winters here must be spectacular with all the snow covered landscapes, and bone-chilling too. 

Day 0


Getting to Edinburgh


We arrived in Manchester and after a brief rest stop at a hotel, we were headed to Manchester. We had pre booked our tickets to Edinburgh. Advance booking saves cost when I compared the prices. Also, you can book seats if you get tickets in advance. 
Our Edinburgh AirBnB
Train journey from Manchester to Edinburgh was about 3 hours and some change. But our train kept getting delayed. First due to a disruptive passenger. Then they didn't have functioning toilets, so they had to take a restroom break at another station. The train in-charge made an announcement that if anyone took a smoke break and took more than five minutes, she would leave, and boy, she meant business. Haha! Luckily we arrived only 25 minutes later than scheduled time. Had we been delayed by more than 30 minutes, we would have been entitled for 50% refund. Darn!
From the airport, our AirBnB was a twenty minute walk. Even while booking two months in advance, the availability of hotels and BnBs wasn't as great. Looks like the options are few and they fill up fast. Our BnB was located on Queen Street and we walked everywhere from here. So, anywhere close to Princess Street, or Old Town is a good place to stay. Our BnB was cozy and pretty. Such an English/Scottish feel to it. Lacy curtains, black and white pictures in old frames. Pastel wall paper in the room and a small balcony.

Hello Edinburgh!


Edinburgh Old Town
We were so jet lagged that we desperately needed a nap. Thankfully the sunset was at 9:40 pm, so even after we slept for a couple of hours, we had daylight for quite sometime. We went to Kamasutra Indian restaurant for dinner. Pretty decent food, and to my surprise, Edinburgh has quite a few Indian restaurants. If you are here on a weekend, it may make sense to make reservations for wherever you plan to have dinner at. The restaurants get crowded. 
After dinner, we walked to the Greyfriar's kirkyard, which is an old cemetery, but the main attraction for me was the statue of a dog outside the courtyard who dies waiting for his owner next to his grave, Greyfriar's Bobby. From here we just walked towards the High street. And walked along the Royal mile for sometime. The street is lined with souvenir shops and there are street artists performing in the evening. You will hear the sound of bagpipes at any given point in time. After a short stroll, we walked back home via Princess street. It is a cute little city where you can enjoy the local shops and cafe and just walk around and soak in the culture. Meanwhile, don't forget to stop by one of those many red telephone booths and get your standard UK touristy picture!

Day 1


Morning Run and Brunch:


Skilts everywhere
Thanks to jet lag, we were up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7 am. So we decided to go for a run up to Calton Hill. It was a pleasant day with sun playing hide and seek with the clouds. The run included quite a few stairs to get to the top as well. Their is a loop around the hill to give you 360 degree views of the city. You get the views of the Holyrood Palce, the Princess Street and the sea. There are also a few old monuments and observatory at the top of the hill. 
After we got back, we were hungry, like really hungry. Luckily, yelp works in UK. And I discovered Dishoom. The one in other cities would have definitely had a long wait, so we decided this was our chance. On our way, we discovered that the St. Andrew's square, right where Dishoom is located had a fair and some bagpipers! It was armed forces day, so a lot of men and women in uniforms. At dishoom, we loved the ambience and the look of the place. Old style Irani cafes from Mumbai. We ordered chole-puri, vada pav and pav bhaji. All excellent. The flavors were amazing. I so wish we had a restaurant that served food of this quality in the bay area. 

The Royal Mile:


Up next was doing the standard Royal Mile walk. But first we walked along the Princess Street. Stopped by the iconic Scotts monument and got some good pictures and walked all the way till the end of the street. On our way was the Waterstone bookshop and cafe. I got in to use the restroom, but was pleasantly surprised by the views of the castle from their second floor cafeteria sit out. 
View from the Calton Hill
Continue walking and you are at the King's road. Its all uphill from here till you get to the castle entrance. If you have pre bought tickets, you get 2 pounds off each ticket and you avoid the long wait in the queues. We weren't too keen on going in, but wanted to hang around and take in some views. But our highlight was running into our friend Smita and her sister. We knew they were in UK to watch the world cup matches, but had no clue they would be in Edinburgh and we would just run into them on the streets. What are the odds!
St. Giles Cathedral
From here we started walking down the High street. We had walked a portion the previous day as well. But it being Saturday, it was crowded. Our next stop on this cobbled street was the St. Giles cathedral. Its very beautiful. The arches in the roof and the stained glass paintings are beautiful. There is a small room inside, I don't remember its name but it is used for granting the knighthood. The wooden engravings there are absolutely gorgeous. Its a small cathedral, compared to the ones you would see in Italy I guess, but is beautiful.
Moving on, we stopped for some street performers and then had to wade through small groups of pride parade. Then we took a break at one of the cafes for a quick bite and coffee.  There are narrow alleys that run all the way to the main street and give you the feel of old town. Plus, there are other spots to check out along the Royal Mile if you are interested. There is a museum of optical illusion, recommended by our friends, a dungeon (Mary King's close) and some galleries and museums on the parallel streets. 
Holyrood Palace
Holyrood palace will remind you some scenes from The Crown. The last entry is at 4:30 pm and of course we missed that. But were happy to get the view of the facade from the entrance. There is Scottish parliament right across the street. This is their new parliament house, functional since the last decade. The previous house was on the Royal Mile and is now closed. Apparently you can watch the parliament in action and see some live debates. The building is modern and the architecture so much in contrast to the Holyrood palce it stands across to. You can also listen to Rick Steeve's audio guided tour for the Royal Mile walk.

Arthur's Seat:


Arthur's Seat
Up next on our list was the hike up the Arthur's seat. It was a strenuous hike. About one mile each way with 1000 ft of elevation gain. It wasn't easy, but the views from the top are mind blowing. Do it if you have the stamina and the time. Gorgeous. Downhill didn't take much time and once back, we wanted dinner. We decided to meet with Smita and her sister at Mother's India Cafe. They serve small portions, so you can try multiple things and being four people we tried quite a few things on the menu. All were so good. This was our lucky day with some good Indian food at Dishoom and then here. I recommend panipuri and chaat for sure. Everything else was good too, so you won't go wrong with your order. I just loved how walkable this city was. There is uber too if you aren't too keen on walking. 

Day 2


Drive to Inverness:


Our plan for the day was to rent a car at the airport and drive. We ubered to the airport. Our Scottish driver was so chatty and so helpful. I loved our conversation for the fifteen minutes. He kept telling us basic road rules, how to get the gas at the station. And we passed by a beautiful school, which I assumed was an old palace or something, but I was wrong. It was built as a school for the deaf and the dumb and was not functional anymore. As you get out of old town, you start seeing newer construction and realize how big the city is. Anyhow, we rented our car and were off.
High Tea at Perth
Following directions wasn't hard at all. Scottish people love roundabouts and so do Chandigarh people. So we were home as far as navigating around the roundabouts was concerned. About an hour in, we decided to have brunch at Perth. Luckily, yelp showed this tea and breakfast place, Efiie's at Perth. I absolutely loved this place. The English setting and serving in fine bone china, was just too good of an experience. The food was okay and so was the tea, but I was wowed by the experience. Must go to a tea room if you are in UK. Must, must.
Driving further, we spotted Blair Castle. I had no intentions of going in. So, we skipped that part, but you could stop by and take some pictures of the castle. 
Inverness Castle
The views are pretty. Vast green highlands. A river at times next to the highway. Keep driving and you'll reach Inverness. A good place for lunch. We wanted to get our swim for the day, but their fancy athletic centre was closed for a swim meet that day. Hence, we ventured into the city. Very small old town area. You can walk the entire area in a 10-15 minutes. Got some good views of the Inverness castle from the Ness bridge. And next stop was a restaurant for lunch. While I got hangry looking for a restaurant, they started closing at 3pm. So I opted for whatever I saw next which happened to be an Italian place was pretty decent. 
Next we were driving along Loch Ness. 

Loch Ness:


Loch Ness
We drove straight to the Urquhart Castle. Very pretty castle, apparently at the deepest point in the lake. You have to buy tickets to go in and get some views. Its mostly in ruins, but thats the beauty of it. From here, keep driving to Fort Augustus. A small town to take a break and you could drive to the Suidhe viewpoint form here. We were tired and wanted to head back, so we didn't. This place has top views of the lake and the pictures are pretty, so might as well stop by if you can. You could follow this itinerary or viewpoints.
Urquhart Castle
Onwards, we arrived at our BnB place booked via AirBnB. It was a cottage at the end of narrow road in Dornie. Walkable distance from the Eilean-Donan castle. I'll write more about the castle on our way back to Fort Williams as that is when we visited the castle. The views from our room were amazing and once again we were served english breakfast in fine bone china by our host. Its Glennan House, and we recommend it, in case you are looking for options. The castle lights up at night and looks really pretty, but we both were tired and skipped it.

Day 3


Isle of Skye:


Today was the day for our highlight of the Scotland trip. The weather forecast showed mild showers all day, but it was a bit of drizzle in the morning and not at all disruptive. I am so thankful for the lovely weather that cooperated with us. Portree is definitely the town where you can get options to eat and drink. So we planned our trip around Portree. We started from Dornie and reached Portree in about an hour. We weren't as hungry, so decided to do the north out and back loop. 
Old Man of Storr
Drive is pretty and the first stop is Old Man of Storr. Its a rock formation that stands firm at the top along with other strangely shaped rocks. Its a hike from the car park. So, park the car and get your hiking bag out and start walking. It is a decent elevation gain to the gate from where you could either do a loop or go out and back. If you got a little up, you will get rewarded with beautiful views. Sumit hiked all the way up and I huffed and puffed till I saw him returning back. I realized I had hiked around a mile from the car park and the views were getting better and better. Also, the constant bleats of sheep and lambs were quite serene.
Kilt's viewpoint
Next stop was drive all the way upto flower cottage. Not a scenic viewpoint, but a hotel located at the scenic spot. We stopped, took pictures and started driving back. We stopped at the Kilt Rock viewpoint, which is a must stop. Offers the view of cliffs, a waterfall and the clear waters. Keep driving and their a waterfalls on the left. Its right along the roadside, so might as well stop. Now we were back in Portree and it was time for lunch before heading to the south loop. We got lunch at cafe Arriba. They had some decent vegetarian options, so no complaints. Also, we tried vegetarian haggis, which is a Scotland specialty. Umm, not that bad. I could get used to this taste.
Now, we drove to the Fairy Pools, Off the higway, it becomes a single narrow lane. And you must drive carefully. Pull into the passing lanes to let the traffic pass by. Fairy Pools are about twenty minute walk from the parking lot. Go and take some pictures, don't have to hike all the way up.
Neist Lighthouse
From here, it was a long drive to the Neist Point Lighthouse. My favorite attraction in the Isle of Skye. Find some car parking. Now you can either take the designated pathway all the way up to the lighthouse, or just go right from the cafe shop and walk ten minutes out to get the beautiful cliffs and the lighthouse in the view. We did the latter and oh boy, the views were amazing. I didn't think that hiking up to the lighthouse could give me the views of the cliffs and the lighthouse. So, we skipped it. Also, I was excited to get my cover picture. 
Up next, was the final stop of the evening, Dunveagon Castle. They close at 5 pm, so of course we were late. And I kept looking for some view points, which should be outside the castle, but didn't get any results. Later discovered that if you follow the road all the way till end you will be able to get views of the castle, but they are from a little farther away than you'd like. Now we were headed to our Airbnb, some five miles away from Portree. Nested in middle of the valley with such pretty views, these people get up to such view everyday! Again a decent experience with the AirBnB. 
We should have called it a day, but went for a swim to the Arainn Fhinn, the Fingal Centre in Portree. Excellent pool and some great facilities. You see, I try my best to get Sumit his training workouts even when we are on a vacation. We had dinner at Taste of India, which was pretty pretty bad. But some Indian food at 10 pm, is better than nothing I guess. 

Day 4


Bike Ride:


Biking the Isle of Skye
Plan was for Sumit to rent a bike at the Skye Bike Shack, close to Portree and go for a bike ride, while I spend time at various cafes and get this blog done. Portree is a cute little town and walking around was fun. I visited quite a few souvenir shops and also walked around the harbour.
Bike Route
Sumit completed this bike loop, about 40 miles from the bike rental place Skye Bike Shack. The owner was pretty helpful and a bike enthusiast himself. The roads are narrow, but the drivers are used to bike riders, so nothing to be really scared of but we mindful at all times. From here we were headed to Edinburgh, but not before making a few stops on our way back. Goal was to reach Edinburgh by midnight. 

Drive to Fort Williams:


Silgachen Bridge
Our first stop was Sligachan brigde on our drive back. It is a very old bridge and you get some great pictures of this bridge. Keep driving and admiring the views. 
Next stop was Eilean Donan Castle which we had skipped the day we stayed in Dornie. We went in the castle. It is a residential place and the inside is fully furnished. You get to see a few parts of the castle if you get the tickets. If you are interested in pictures, the best shots ate from outside. It is one of the most picturesque castles I have seen.
Viaduct view from Glenfinnan
Next up was drive to Fort Williams. We just drove straight to the town and headed to a restaurant we picked online. The restaurant food was okay, nothing great, but I was more excited to go to the Harry Potter bridge. It is 30 minutes from Fort Williams. The views of the viaduct however are not on the main road and you need to hike for about 20 minutes to get a to a good viewpoint. Its not difficult to find the viewpoint as you'll see a lot of people heading in that direction. It is located close to the Glenfinnan station. However, you must time your visit with the train times. There are regular trains passing the bridge, and also steam engine trains going a couple of times every day. Look up the timetable if you want to see a train on the bridge. Nevertheless, the views of just the bridge are spectacular too. You can also ride the train from Fort Williams to Mallaig and then then the ferry onwards.

Drive to Edinburgh: 


Next up was drive straight to Edinburgh. If you have time, you can stop by various viewpoints on the way, else drive straight to Edinburgh. I would suggest you stop by close to Loch Lomond for a day and enjoy the views and take pictures on your way back. We hadn't planned on visiting Loch Lomond, so we drove straight to Edinburgh If you have time, stop by to take in the views of Ben Nevis, Glencoe, three sisters and Brackfinn falls. We reached our rental center at 12:05 am, dropped off the car and hired an uber to our airbnb. Luckily, we had rented the same airbnb as before so we were familiar with the house and the owner had given us the keys to keep for our second stay. Worked out perfectly.

Day 5


Train to London:


Pre booking your train and making a seat reservation is always a smart things to do. We arrived at the station in the morning. Grabbed a couple of bagels and coffee and got on the train for our 4+ hour journey to London. Bye bye Scotland. We will be back again for some parts we missed, but our parents will be visiting next week on a pre booked tour.

Other pointers:

  • Must get a railcard if you plan to take multiple trips. Check out various options. The one that worked for us was "Two Together Railcard". It was easy to get and gave us deep discounts on tickets. We booked all our tickets from trainline.co.uk
  • Narrow single lane roads are everywhere, especially in the Isle of Skye. Follow the protocol and wait in the passing areas for other drivers.
  • Decided to skip Glasgow as it is "just another city"
  • Skipped Loch Lomond as we were short on time.
  • If going to Loch Lomond, might as well ride the jacobite train too.
  • Aberdeen is another popular city to visit.

Castles:

I personally don't like going inside the castles as much I like enjoying their setting and their facades. For me a castle nested in middle of mountains, on top of a hill are more picturesque than going inside these castles.  See below for the list of castles on this trip:

  • Edinburgh Castle - Set atop an extinct volcano, looks majestic from the city. Has exhibit of crown jewels and one of the oldest inhabited castles.
  • Blair Castle - Looks very pretty from the highway with green mountains in the background. Boasts of a good distillery closeby.
  • Inverness Castle - Smaller castle, but if you stop by in the city for lunch, take in the views from the bridge.
  • Urquhart Castle - Castle is in ruins. It is next to Loch Ness and you pay to go see. We totally enjoyed going in seein the ruins. Gives really good views of the Loch.
  • Eilean Donan Castle - Loved the setting of this castle. You take a footbridge to get to it. The better views of the castle and the bridge are from the parking lot. Fun fact: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai movie was shot here. See this link on youtube.
  • Dunvegon Castle - We missed this as we arrived late. It closes at 5 pm. But I anyway didn't intend to go in, but couldn't figure out where to get the views of this castle from. If you do, let me know and I will  add them here :)



Thursday, January 10, 2019

Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns)



We always knew that Australia was going to be a family and fun trip because we have a lot of extended family, mostly cousins settled in different cities. Hence, we planned accordingly and spent some time with them. Also, a must to-do was to dive in the Great Barrier Reef. And it took us a while to figure out where to go for that. More on it later. Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 1 -> Arrive in Sydney. Sightseeing. New Year fireworks at midnight
Day 2 -> Fly to Melbourne. Drive around
Day 3 -> Sightseeing Melbourne. Philip island.
Day 4 -> Drive to 12 Apostles.
Day 5 -> Fly to Cairns.
Day 6 -> Snorkel/dive in Great Barrier Reef
Day 7 -> Sightseeing Cairns
Day 8 -> Fly to Sydney
Day 9 -> Sightseeing Sydney
Day 10 -> Drive Great Ocean Road
Day 11 -> Fly out

When to go:

Well, Australian summers are our winters, so this is a good place to celebrate Christmas and New Year in summers if you'd like. Only catch is that if you are interested in Great Barrier reef diving and/or snorkelling, this will be jellyfish season. We used stinger suit provided to us by the company that took us for diving and it worked just fine. So, this may be something to look out for.

Flying in and out:

We were getting good deals on tickets to Sydney, so we picked that as our fly in/out city. Other cities, Melbourne and Cairns are very far from each other and you would have to take domestic flights between cities anyway, so just fly in and out of any that works out. Though keep in mind that since our flights included a stop over at Auckland, we needed a New Zealand visa on our segment from Sydney to San Francisco. But since we didn't have that, and we had no clue that we needed a transit visa even if we didn't plan to get out of the airport, we had to rebook our return flights, else we wouldn't have been allowed to board.

Domestic flights:

We mostly took JetStar and Qantas as those times worked best for us. Most of the airlines are good and have similar rates and luggage restrictions. Note that the domestic airlines do weigh your carry-on luggage as well and you need to make sure that your number of items and the weight are within their specified limits.

SYDNEY


New Year's Eve and half a day:

New Year fireworks
We flew in on 31st December morning and luckily got our room early in the morning even though our reservation had check in time of late afternoon. Since we were jet lagged we were ready to step out as soon as we freshened up. Now Sydney goes crazy on 31st to watch the fireworks over the Sydney bridge and the Opera House. There are some spots which are crowd favorites and people settle in their spots with their garden chairs early in the morning. The most favorite spot is Mrs. McGuire's Chair. Its a bit of a walk from the downtown, and people start queueing up pretty early in the day and plan to camp out all through the night. There are other popular spots too and you could just google for them or ask one of the many volunteers set up by the city. Its pretty decently well organized. Anyway, our plan was to roam about the city during the day and then head up to Google's office to see the partial view of fireworks from their terrace. Its a separate story that we fell asleep, thanks to jet lag and woke up at 11:40pm only to scramble out of bed and beat the traffic and make it to the terrace at 11:58 pm, just in time for the fireworks, haash!
MCA Cafe
Downtown all lit up!
We started our city tour from St. James Station and roaming around the Sydney tower area, ate Indian food at the Chachu's street food. From here we went to the circular quay. Walked around the area and went to the MCA cafe to get good views of the Sydeny Opera House. Take a note, THIS IS the place to get good pictures of the Opera House and some views of the bridge. From here walk around the Barangaroo area for options to eat as this place has plenty of different restaurants and this is the commercial area of the city. We had had a long day and we retired for the day to our hotel and decided to take quick nap before heading out for the fireworks to the Google Office. But, the jet lag had set in, and we have no clue, when the alarm went off, when we switched it off. Before we knew, we were sleeping all through the evening and I luckily just got up to look at the time as I felt it was dark outside and it was already 11:40 pm! Only 20 minutes to go for the New Years. We have never been so quick to get out of the bed and get ready and get out in Uber. With all the traffic and everything, we still managed to make it to the rooftop at 11:58, just in time for the fireworks. We don't have that typical picture of the bridge and the opera house and the fireworks (for that you need to be at the MacGuire's chair), but we have a few decent ones. Not bad huh!
"The Rocks" area which has old quaint shops and some nice little restaurants. Generally a good area to wander about. From here, you could also explore the

A day in Sydney:

QVB
After we got back from Melbourne, we decided to spend a couple of days in and around Sydney. For the day in Sydney, we started with a late lunch at "The Canteen" in Barangaroo. Good Indian food and a very vibrant area during lunch for office-goers. We love grabbing coffee from local cafeterias on our vacations and that what we did before heading out to QVB, Queen Victoria Building. It is a really pretty building and you feel you have been transported back to Victorian times and somewhere in England, Even the nearby area has some statues and building architecture which reminds you of the old English architecture.
View from Mrs. McGuire's chair
Next, we took the bus to the art gallery and walked all the way to Mrs. McGuire's chair. It really is the best view of the bridge and the opera house. Highly recommend it. From here, we walked along the shore through the botanic gardens to the Opera House. We didn't go inside, or didn't watch any show here, just roamed around and took pictures of the opera house and the bridge.
Next we took a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly. Walked to the Manly beach. Its like a cute little promenade by the beach. Walked along the beach. Some of the beaches in Australia have really good waves if you are into surfing.
After spending some time at the Manly beach, we decided to take the ferry back and walk to Mrs. McGuire's chair as we wanted to take sunset pictures here. After that we walked back to the nearest train station and headed back home. Our day had a lot of walking, but the views and the vibe were worth it.

Grand Ocean Road to Wollongong and Kiama:

Kiama Blowhole
We had one day before we flew out, so our plan was to drive the Ocean Road all the way to Kiama and then return and spend some time in Sydney. We left after breakfast and just before we hit the Grand ocean road, there was a lookout. We spent some time there admiring the cliffs and some para gliders. Grand Ocean Road is good, but if you have been to Hana Hwy in Hawaii or Hwy 1 in California, this wouldn't live up to your expectations. The route we took was mostly a coastal route with some vista points. Our first stop was the sea cliff bridge to take some pictures.
Next up, we drove straight to Wollongong lighthouse. This is a scenic area with cute little shipping dock. Wollongong beach was also close by. We then grabbed lunch at JJ Indian in the town. This was a decent restaurant and food was good. Next we drove to Kiama blowhole. You have to wait for a bit for the water pressure to buildup, and its a bit crowded. But was a pretty cute thing to capture on camera. Well after that, it was time to head back to Sydney.
We were excited to visit the Bondi Beach. Such a huge beach and so crowded! The beachy shops are across the road from the beach. Can't believe there is a such a lively beach next to such a big city. A lot of surfers at this beach, a lot of volleyball and such a warm sandy beach. We were headed to Paramatta next to meet our extended family for dinner. Australia does have some nice restaurants, I have to admit. We ate really good Italian food at the Mama's and Papa's Italian restaurant.
Bondi Beach

Some pointers for Sydney:


  • We had Mexican food at Mejico. I really liked their food, but it was a bit expensive restaurant.
  • Commuting via buses and trains is super convenient. use google maps to route.
  • You could also climb the Sydney bridge in Sydney. You have to make reservation in advance. It sounded like fun, but I wasn't up for the vertigo challenge.
  • We didn't plan to visit the Sydney Cricket Ground, but we should have, as we heard later than Indian team was practising in nets the day we were near SCG.


MELBOURNE

Outside Melbourne station
We arrived in Melbourne in the afternoon. We rented a car and headed to our friend's place where we were planning to stay. After sumptuous homemade lunch, we headed out for a drive through the hidden Kangaroo valley and spotted quite a few kangaroos! So much fun seeing them hoping around. They are huge and turned out much bigger than I had expected. Next we were heading out to Williamstown for a drive through. Some lovely views of the city downtown from here and some coastal beaches to drive by or you could even stop and take a stroll. Lovely seaside views! And we called it a day.

A day in Melbourne:

Spotting Kangaroos
We started our day with a pre booked tour of MCG(Melbourne Cricket Ground). We parked near the Jollimont station as there was plenty of parking there during the weekday. We walked up to the ground and totally enjoyed the tour. The ground is quite big but I guess ground in India are even bigger. There are some statues of cricketers outside too if you want to take pictures with them. There were views of the tennis courts being prepped for the Australian Open from the top floor of the ground.  Next we were headed to the downtown and after we managed to find parking somewhere on the street(super expensive) we headed out toFlinders street and Collins street. Then we walked to St.Paul's Cathedral and took pictures of the Victoria station. By this time we were tired and hungry and went to Bodega underground for Mexican food. Food in Australia has been rarely disappointing. Then we walked to the Bourke station and Chinatown and grabbed some coffee. It was about time for us to now leave for Philip's island to see the penguins. I was super excited! It was quite a drive and we had planned to stop over at Nobbie Point for some views. Totally worth the time. Lovely views of the coast. Next up was the penguin parade. The Philip island penguin parade was totally
MCG


Nobbies Point
commercialized. And crowded. We got tickets and grabbed seats and waited, and waited and waited. Penguins didn't return till it was almost dark and the visibility was quite low. There were lights to see the penguins, but it was very crowded and after they arrived in a few groups, we decided to head back as it was quite a long drive too. It wasn't a bad experience, but go prepped with a blanket, food and be ready to wait. You can't take pictures yourself, but can download them from their website. Hence, I don't have any pictures of the penguins, but of the crowd waiting to see the penguins.
Waiting for penguins.
What we skipped were the Grand prix circuit and the chocolate factory.

Drive to Twelve Apostles:

Twelve Apostles
We were planning to go visit the famous twelve apostles today. It was a long drive especially since we were planning on taking the long coastal route. The drive was long but decently scenic. We stopped at a small beach town for lunch. Had pizza at Italo Cafe followed by coffee at a local cafeteria. And off we were to the apostles. There were quite a few Vista points on our way. And it was super hot. But more than the scorching heat, what bothered us were the flies. Way too many flies made everything annoying. For twelve apostles, there is designated parking for tourists and
designated pathway to walk. A further south, there is a pretty beach and you can take he stairway all the way down to the beach as well. On our way back we decided to take the shorter route instead of the longer scenic one. Once we got home, after dinner, we wanted to go checkout the Crown Casino in downtown. The casino was nice, but nothing compared to casinos in Vegas. We spent sometime playing poker and roulette but were so tired by now that decided to head back and get some sleep before flying out Cairns the next day.

CAIRNS (Great Barrier Reef):


Welcome to Cairns
We landed sometime early in the evening. The humid weather was so welcoming compared to the dry heat waves of Melbourne. Hired a cab to our hotel which was a little far. We stayed at the Hilton Cairns which I thought was located well. It is a typical beach town and the vibe is so touristy. biryani to go for our early morning breakfast. We walked around the city pool area. There is no access to the beach or the water from here. Beaches are located a little further out from the main town of Cairns. This is however a very touristy and a well developed area to stay. While walking back to the hotel, we saw so many bats flying all around as our hotel was located near a small park with lots of trees and I guess bats were heading out for the day.
Along the coast
I got into my tropical clothes and we headed out for dinner. Very walkable market area with plenty of pubs, cafes and restaurants. We grabbed dinner at Spicy Bites. Dinner was pretty good and since we were leaving for our snorkelling/scuba diving tour in the morning, we also got some


Snorkelling/Scuba Diving:

Ready to find Nemo!
We had booked our tours with Seastar Adventures. Our overall experience was excellent. Very well organized and excellent guides. They had stinger body suits for everyone to wear and avoid jellly fish stings as it was jelly fish season. We were off to a small island, more like a strip of land in middle of the reef where the boat was parked and we all got off with our respective guides for snorkelling and scuba diving. I wasn't keen on scuba so I opted for snorkelling, but Sumit was scuba diving. The water was surprisingly clear and not as muddy as I had anticipated. We got some look at the fish inside and I kept looking for Nemo or Dory! I spotted one Nemo. Yay!! After about an hour or so in the water, all the divers and swimmers were back and we were served lunch. They had decent veggie options, so no complaints. next we were headed back to Cairns. I think we got back late in the afternoon, so still had a few hours to explore Carins, even though there isn't much to explore in this tiny little town ^_^
The evening after our snorkeling trip we spent walking around the esplanade. Went to a Indian brothers for dinner and then had coffee later at one of the cute little cafes.

A day in Cairns:

We had the entire day to ourselves and we wanted to just chill and take it easy. My favorite holiday breakfast is pancakes, so we found a breakfast place, Helga's pancakes which has excellent reviews. A tiny little diner a few blocks from our hotel and had good breakfast options. Pancakes weren't anything out of the world, but pancakes are pancakes.
pancakes
We also thought of getting a massage as there are quite a few massage parlors around, and there were a few with very decent reviews, but we somehow, decided to give it a miss.
Next up was visit to a Koala! The reef Casino has a Mini Zoo on its top floor and you get a chance to take picture and pet a Koala. So we headed straight to the Reef Casino. After our pictures, we grabbed lunch at Flinder's Grill in the Casino and watched the cricket match. It is so much to travel in cricket loving nations, because you can watch matches playing their sports bars, restaurants, etc.
Next up was short run along the coast. They have a well paved path for joggers and walkers. Once we returned, it was almost evening and the city was getting lively with all the hustle bustle and pubs and shoppers. We had found Spicy Bites really good, so we decided to have dinner here once more.
Koala picture!
Another place recommended for breakfast is Jafflehead. Also, there are plenty of branded shops and beachy outlets for you to shop in Cairns. If nothing else, you can spend entire day roaming around and shopping.

Other things to do in Cairns:

  • SkyRail Rainforest Cableway: This is located about an hour or so outside Cairns. You can take a train to go here or drive here. We hadn't rented a car and weren't interested in visiting a rainforest, so we skipped it.
  • Kuranda Scenic Railway: To get to the rainforest you take the Kuranda railway which is supposed to be an attraction in itself.
  • Palm Cove: One of the more popular beaches. Since Cairna is not really located by the beach, you need to get out of the town to access a beach and this was one of the more popular ones.



OTHER POINTERS FOR AUSTRALIA



  • Uluru Rock: Its a popular touristy thing to do in Australia, but it is far from any of the main cities and we would need a few days to fly in and out and visit the Ayers Rock.
  • Brisbane/ Gold Coast: This is popular for beaches and amusement parks. We weren't interested in either and decided to keep this for our next visit to Australia
  • Blue Moutain/Three sisters: It is a popular day trip from Sydney, but most of friends and family discouraged us saying there is nothing much to do/see and its not even blue. haha! Three sisters is a rock formation in the blue mountain park.
  • Transit Visa: Check for transit visa regulations if you are flying through New Zealand. It looks like you need a transit visa even if you don't plan to get out of the airport. And the rule is applicable only when you are flying out of Australia. We had to rebook our return flights because of this.
  • Opal card: Can get at any grocery or general store and is used for using public transport in Sydney. Makes life a lot easy if you take public transport.
  • No id check at the airport: Surprisingly, there was no id check at the airports.
  • Food courts at the airport: Have plenty of options and good ones. In general, food in Australia is so good, and the food courts at the airport also surpass expectations.
  • Weather: It was so hot in Melbourne one day that they couldn't turn on the airplane engines and that delayed our flight! But it got chilly in the night. So prepare to face multiple weathers in the same day.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Monaco (A day trip)


Monaco gets its special page because it is an independent country and I do not want to put it under the South France page! More about the South France itinerary is on its dedicated page. This page is about our day in Monaco.

Getting In:

Biking from Nice to Monaco
Conveniently connected by trains from nearby cities. It was a twenty minute ride from the Nice train station. Train tickets may not be available or the trains cancelled, so check early on the day off or the day before and get tickets.
While I took the train, Sumit was biking from Nice to Monaco. On his way, he stopped by a cute town Eze, a popular stop over for a hopping southern coast tour.
We both reached around the same time, but rendezvous was a nightmare. Here is what happened. Since Monaco is a different country, our phones that were working fine in France, didn't immediately start working in Monaco. I had a bad connection and no wi-fi at the train station, so I couldn't connect with him. We had initially planned to meet at the Oceanography museum, but I couldn't get a taxi. During the intermittent signal calls I got, we decided to meet at the famous pool located in middle of the city by the docks.
Getting to Nice
However, I had come up to the second floor exit of the station and figuring out how to get there was a nightmare. It was right in front of me, I could seeit , but when I stepped out, I couldn't find a road leading up to it. Thankfully I went back into the station and found a help desk. So, this city is vertical and horizontal! I was at the wrong floor. I had to exit on a different floor and just take the stairs all the way down and walk straight for 10 minutes to get to the pool, or the La Condamine area. but I spent an hour figuring this out and with no connectivity I was almost prompted to head back to Nice.
So when you get here, take a deep breath, ask someone and find the right exit and navigate correctly and not just rely on the google map as it doesn't have capability to navigate vertically!
Also, while you are the the tourist information office or the help desk, make sure to get a tourist map to help you navigate.

What to do:

The iconic pool - Next time, taking a dip!
Initially, I had planned on following this walking map I had created. After our fiasco, we met at the pool. First, we grabbed lunch at on of the many restaurants around the area. Sumit left his bike securely fastened to a lamp pole near the restaurant. Food was good.

Next up, we decided to follow our tourist map and go to the Prince's palace, many steps later we were outside the palace and got really good views of this tiny little city-country. Some souvenir shops are close by. There is also an oceanography museum and a view point located close by, but we ditched that and decided to head out straight to the Casino, Monte Carlo.
F1 tracks in the city!

We walked to the Casino Monte Carlo and what a sight! Luxury cars lined outside. I think there was an entry fees, but I don't remember now. the interiors are so royal and opulent, it was much more royal than I had expected. Of course you aren't allowed to go inside to all the game rooms as I guess they are reserved for some "A-list" people.

Casino Monte Carlo
We then walked back to the La Condamine area and settled in a restaurant to watch the France vs Belgium semi final at a restaurant. The atmosphere was electric and there were of course French supporters everywhere.
La Condamine area

After the match, we headed back to Nice via train. This time we had no issues going to the station and yes, we took the stairs and the elevators. Pretty convenient if you do that and follow the tourist information map. The city oozes luxury and clearly you see it would be the richest per capita country in the worls.