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.


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:

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.


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

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.
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.


  • 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.