Posts Tagged ‘Sydney’


Sydney Side Trip: Head Out to the Blue Mountains

April 1, 2010

On my first trip to Australia, I started by spending three months working in Sydney. After that I figured it was time for me to venture out and see a little more of what Australia had to offer. Just to get my travel feet wet, I decided to spend three days in the Blue Mountains before taking off on a longer journey, and it turned out to be the perfect start.

I left for Katoomba, the center of tourism for the Blue Mountains, from Sydney’s Central Station. The two-hour train ride first takes you through Sydney’s less-than-quaint western suburbs, but when you get past them and closer to the mountains the scenery changes completely. After months of being surrounded by honking cabs and towering office buildings, it was hard for me to believe this serene place had been right in my backyard the whole time. It’s no wonder so many Sydney-siders have weekend homes there.

Katoomba isn’t a large town. There’s one main street, creatively named Katoomba Street, where the cafes, pharmacies, restaurants and tour companies are all located. The train station is at the top of this street, and just a few blocks down the hill at #207 is the Blue Mountains YHA.

The YHA is bright and clean with a large kitchen and lounge area, and the rooms are spacious and homey. While checking in I was given a map and the desk clerk highlighted the more popular walks for me, pointing out the ones I still had time to do that afternoon. You can book every possible tour offered in the mountains through the hostel, and most tour operators will pick you up at the front door.

I dropped my things and set off for the Three Sisters. There are buses on Katoomba St. that shuttle people there and back, but it’s only about a 15 minute walk so I decided to stretch my legs.

The recommended viewing area for the Three Sisters is Echo Point. You’ll find that it’s not necessarily the best place to view the Sisters, as it’s situated directly behind them, whereas the area to the west, around the Scenic Railway, gives you a much better profile.

Govetts Leap

From Echo Point you can descend the Giant Staircase, about 900 steps, and hike along Federal Pass Walk, toward Katoomba Falls, or you can stay up top and do the Prince Henry Cliff Walk. That’s the one I chose, and it was a nice stroll compared to the trails I took over the next couple of days.

Walking along the cliffs, there are several lookout spots that put you right on the edge, overlooking the Jamison Valley. Some made my jaw drop with the spectacular views of forests that never seem to end. I’m definitely a city girl, but the nature thing started to grow on me here, and I think it’s safe to say that at times I actually frolicked along the path, listening for birds and breathing in the mountain air. I even understood why people go to places like this to bungee. Seeing such vast, incredible areas of untouched nature, I wanted to jump right in the middle of it.

Live Entertainment! Woo Doggies!

That night the YHA hosted a local band, the Didgeridoo Dingoes. They had electric guitars, drums, even a harmonica, but the centerpiece of the act was the didgeridoo. At times they had two and three going.

I spent the evening talking with my four roommates, which is a great part of hostel living. In my three days there I met people from Luxembourg, Holland, Austria, Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and of course an Aussie or two. I expected most people in the hostel to be university age, but there were several grandparents and families with kids. It made the place seem even cozier, watching them cook and play board games together.

Day Two: Comin’ Down the Mountain

There are several bus systems that go around Katoomba. The public buses cover a lot of ground, and you just pay per ride, but they might not go exactly where you want to. I decided to get a pass for one of the tourist buses. You can choose between the Explorer Bus and the Trolley Tour. They make almost the exact same stops for about the same price, but they offer different extras and discounts, so ask about the details before you buy anything.

I chose the Trolley and hopped on at the main Katoomba St. stand. The first stop is Leura, the town right next to Katoomba. It’s made up of about one block of antique stores, cafes and bakeries, and I wouldn’t have gotten off the bus except that one of my roommates said there was an incredible lolly shop there. Sure enough, The Candy Store in the Leura Strand Arcade is unbelievable. Hundreds of jars line the walls with every flavor, shape and size candy you can imagine. In between are racks of imported mints and chocolates, candy bars, lollipops, and the novelty items that every seven year old just has to have, like giant gummy rats and edible jewelry.

The trolley makes the circuit every hour, so even after my time in the candy store I had about half an hour to kill, and I walked along Leura Mall, window-shopping. My next stop off the trolley was Scenic World. It’s a cheesy amusement-park-sounding name, but the rides are actually quite cool. The Scenic Railway is the world’s steepest incline railway, making me wonder how it stayed on the tracks rather than peeling off and tumbling through the air.

The train goes through a narrow tunnel cut through the rocks in the mountainside while the music from Indiana Jones plays around you. No, really. John Williams should be getting royalties. Once at the bottom there are several bushwalks you can do, from the four-hour journey to the Ruined Castle, to the quick, half-hour rainforest boardwalk.

I hiked about halfway to the Three Sisters, running into several other backpackers, but not so many as to ruin the serenity of the forest. Katoomba Falls is around there and is another popular destination. Pack some snacks before a hike, as the only place to buy food is at the top of the mountain, in the pricey cafeteria.

Around the Jenolan Caves

To get back up the mountain I took the Sceniscender. It’s the kind of tram you’d expect to see in the Alps, a big tin box that dangles from a very thin rope. I don’t know how those things work, but it got us there and provided even more amazing views of the valley. In case you haven’t gotten it yet, most of this trip is about amazing views.

It was still early, so I took the trolley around the circuit again to Leuralla and Gordon Falls. Gordon Falls is yet another place for a beautiful view, although this one has a gigantic Olive Oyl standing guard. No Popeye, just Olive Oyl. The only reason it makes sense is because across the road is Leuralla, a privately owned mansion that houses a toy and railway museum.

Exhausted from walking, I went back to the hostel and made myself a meal of brie and bread. Got talking to an Aussie from the Gold Coast and a girl from Switzerland who had been traveling around the world for the past ten months. She had such wonderful stories from South America that I’m about ready to start planning my next vacation just on her advice.

Gone Caving

For my final day I had planned to take the public bus to the Grand Canyon and do a walk. When I woke up though, my aching legs and back decided that maybe having door-to-door service in an air-conditioned bus sounded like a better idea, so I went to the front desk and booked a tour to the Jenolan Caves. That’s pronounced Je-NOLAN, like the baseball player, not JEN-olan, like… someone named Jen.

If you book a cave tour, find out if the price includes cave admission. It sounds silly, but there are tour operators who advertise $50 tours to the caves, and then in small print, “Does not include cave entry fee,” which can run another $10-15. My package with Fantastic Aussie Tours did include admission, and I got an $11 YHA discount. Not too shabby. Bring a lunch though, or that $11 will go straight to the overpriced cafe next to the caves.

Considering that the tour wasn’t my first choice of how to spend the day, I wound up loving every minute of it. On the way there the driver made stops at Eagle Hawk Lookout (yes, another stunning view of the Three Sisters, with the Sceniscender plummeting right below) and Govetts Leap. This is where folk tales say an old bushranger jumped off a cliff, horse and all, while running from the law. Charles Darwin also visited the spot to study the layers of rock in the surrounding mountains.

Two hours after departing Katoomba we arrived at the caves, and I think my jaw may have dropped as we got closer to, and then drove straight through, a large gap in a wall of limestone. We were an hour and a half early for the tour, so while the old folks on my bus sat by the Blue Lake, which really is very blue, I headed straight for the trail up to Carlotta Arch.

Inside the Jenolan Caves

The path isn’t very long, but it’s steep and I had to stop every few meters to turn in a full circle and take in the view from every angle. Surrounded by red and orange rock cliffs, I almost felt like I was on the set of Star Trek. The sizes and shapes and colors of the rock formations around me were just too spectacular to be earthly. If I was frolicking a couple of days earlier, then this time I was definitely tromping. Dirt was flying and as I jumped from step to step, lizards scurried out of my way.

I climbed the 410 steps to the top and ate my lunch in peace (except for some persistent giant flies) before going back down the 410 steps to the tour.

If my legs weren’t sore already, the 910 steps throughout the Lucas Cave would have gotten them there. Still, it’s worth it. Our guide was entertaining and informative, and the cave is beautifully set up, with mood lighting and special effects. The second chamber you enter, the Cathedral, is even outfitted with a sound system and the guide played us a selection of music to show off the acoustics.

After another full day of walking I was happy to kick back at the hostel with a couple of people I’d met the night before to play some pool. The next morning I packed up and headed, uphill, to the train station. It was a gorgeous three days in the mountains, but I was glad to know that Sydney, and civilization, were just a couple of hours away.

If you’re planning your trip now, remember that for discounts on tours, transportation, food and more, you should always travel with an ISIC (International Student Identity Card). So sign up for your ISIC now!


I’m off to WonderCon 2010 in San Francisco for the weekend, but when I get back I’ll give you some ideas and tips for travelling around other parts of Australia, including Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Darwin and Cairns.

Happy Easter!


Where Should I Live in Australia?

March 5, 2010

Map by Lonely Planet

If my last blog post about working holidays in Australia made you at least consider doing it, and I really hope it did, then the next step is to start making plans about what to do after you get there.

The first question you should ask yourself: Where am I going to live?

As far as picking a town to settle down in, do you want the urban excitement of Sydney? The casual cool of Melbourne? Someplace close to adventure, like Cairns? Or maybe you want to pick a dusty little outback town and see how the ranchers and miners used to – and sometimes still do – live.

This is where guidebooks and other travelers can come in handy. I chose Sydney when I did my working holiday, mostly because I had friends there, but also because it’s a beautiful place near both beaches and mountains and with lots of nightlife and activities.

Other things to consider:

  1. What kind of work are you looking for? If you have the skills and experience for an office job, then the big cities will have more opportunities and pay higher wages. If you’d rather pick fruit up and down the east coast, then you might look into smaller, rural towns.
  2. What kind of adventures do you want to have? If you’re into scuba diving or boating, head north, around the Great Barrier Reef. If you want to hike and rock climb, take a look at cities around the Grampians.

There really aren’t any bad parts of Australia to live in, and you might want to try more than one area out. Be flexible with your expectations, and your itinerary, and you’re sure to have an amazing experience.

So where are you headed?


Australia Travel Guide: Two Days in Sydney

May 3, 2009
Elizabeth enjoys breakfast by the Harbour Bridge

Elizabeth enjoys breakfast by the Harbour Bridge

How to do Sydney properly:

First, get Bill Bryson’s brilliant book, Down Under (also published under the title In a Sunburnt Country). It’s not a guide to help you decide where to stay or eat, but it will help you get to know Australia, including all the bitey things that can kill you here. His hilarious explanation of cricket alone is worth the price of the book.

Next, stay in Sydney for at least three months, preferebly six or more so that you can enjoy Spring and Summer.

No, that doesn’t help you much if you really only have a few days, but at least think about it. My first trip to Sydney was as a student ambassador with People to People. We spent a couple of days there, then spent three weeks going up the coast, but it was enough to make me want to go back.  So much so that when I had the opportunity, between jobs after college, I got a working holiday visa and spent three months in Sydney and another three months traveling around.

Fondue for two at Max Brenner on Oxford Street

Fondue for two at Max Brenner on Oxford Street

That still wasn’t enough, so I applied to the University of New South Wales and spent a year living in Sydney and earning a Master’s in English. So yes, I really love it here.

Knowing how much Sydney has to offer, it’s really difficult for me to narrow it down to just two or three days of sightseeing. But that’s what I did for my friend, Elizabeth, who came to Sydney with me from Christchurch, and if that’s all the time you have, here’s what I recommend:

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

The Opera House at Circular Quay– Sometimes, when you see something in person after seeing it in books and movies your whole life, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The Mona Lisa, for example, made me say, “Sooo… that’s it? Kinda small, isn’t she?”

The Opera House is not one of those things. With any luck you’ll get to see it on one of Sydney’s sunny, sparkling days. Aside from the strange beauty of the building itself, you have the charming Harbour Bridge as a neighbor, and a bay full of ferries and other boats surrounding it. I love to grab a drink or an ice cream and sit and watch the whole scene.

Royal Botanic Gardens– Right next to the Opera House, the Gardens are a wonderful place to get lost in with a book, some postcards, or a picnic. Walk out to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair for another view of the Opera House.

Luna Park (North Sydney) – You can hop a ferry over to North Sydney, or walk over the Harbour Bridge. Even if you don’t want to play any games or try the rides, the view of Sydney from here is worth the trip. Check the ferry schedulesand from here you can also get to Taronga Zoo,  Balmain or other suburbs worth checking out.

The Rocks – This is the oldest part of Sydney, just across from the Opera House. The Museum of Contemporary Art is here (and it’s free), and there’s an outdoor market that’s fun to walk around. Some of the pubs here have been around for more than 100 years and are a great place to start a night out.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour– This area got a nice polish when the Olympics came to town in 2000 and it’s still a great place to catch a cultural festival or an IMAX film, shop, eat, go to the Japanese Gardens or hands-on Powerhouse Museum, and enjoy the nightlife, as you might have seen when MTV’s Real World called this place home. Some of the city’s coolest bars are around here (pontoon, Bungalow 8, Cargo Bar), so dress to impress and don’t expect to find any happy hour deals. 

Oxford Street – This is where you’ll find most of Sydney’s gay bars, as well as boutiques, cafes and my favorite place, Max Brenner’s Chocolate Cafe. (Try the fondue for two, even if there’s just one of you.) Every night feels like a weekend here, so bring your best dancing shoes.

Bondi Beach– If you only have time for one trip to the beach, Bondi is where everyone goes. There are lots of cafes and shops on the main strip and plenty of hostels if you want to be just a few steps from the sand.

Playing on Bondi Beach

Playing on Bondi Beach

Coogee– You can avoid some of the crowds, and a lot of the English backpackers, by choosing Coogee beach over Bondi. Or, do the Bondi to Coogee walk and see all of the beaches in between.

Weekend Markets– If you’re around on the weekend, head to Glebe, Manly, Paddington or the Rocks to shop for handmade goods, arts and crafts and souvenirs. There are also lots of food options for lunch.

Nightlife– Everywhere. Backpacker bars can be found on Queen Street (Scruffy Murphy’s is infamous), but if you want to go where the locals go, try the more low key scene in Newtown (Marlbourough Hotel, the Bank) or Surry Hills. A few streets over from trendy Darling Harbour, on Pitt Street, try Art House.

Next: Back to New Zealand and the Bay of Islands



Australia Travel Guide: Mardi Gras in Sydney

April 20, 2009

mardiflagWhen I started planning this trip, I was only expecting to visit New Zealand. I knew that even with almost three weeks there, it would be exhausting trying to see everything I wanted to.

Then my friend, Jorge, said the magic words to get me to spend a few days in Sydney: Mardi Gras.

Sydney’s Mardi Gras is one of the most famous gay events in the world, and in 2006 Conde Nast named it as one of the world’s top ten costume parades. The LGBT community held their first parade in 1978 with a couple thousand participants, and now the parade and other events bring around half a million people to Sydney.

The magic words worked on Elizabeth too, and so the two of us flew to Sydney from Christchurch to join the party. Once Elizabeth and I arrived, Jorge gave us our next choice: Watch the parade, or be in it? He said that trying to find a place to watch the parade could be difficult, as people show up hours ahead of time to stake out a piece of sidewalk. But marching in the parade, besides being tons of fun, gives you a front-row seat to the action.

mardigras1We agreed to march with his group, a counseling hotline, and so I put on my best dancing-in-the-street shoes.

The parade doesn’t start until after dark, so you get to enjoy all the lights and disco balls on the floats, like little traveling nightclubs. Walking around before the parade started, we got to take in some of the wild and colorful, metal and leathery costumes people had created. I’m pretty sure I also saw more naked butt cheeks in one night than I’ve seen in my entire life. Some were nice and fit, but others old and wrinkly or pale and flat and a little disappointing.

Sydney has some of the best drag queens I’ve ever seen (and I’m from San Francisco), and the music and energy of the pre-parade festivities seemed to spread through the entire city.

mardijorgeOnce the parade started, all we had to do was have a great time as we walked, jogged, danced and skipped down Oxford Street. Athough plenty of straight people participate and watch, all of Sydney is covered in rainbows and pink Australian flags for the event and Oxford Street in particular in bright colors.

Marching in the Mardi Gras parade was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you ever have a chance to do something like it, go for it. We all felt like rock stars with thousands of people waving and smiling and shouting and taking our pictures. It was much different from the local St. Patrick’s Day parade my high school band used to march in, surrounded by boy scouts and baton twirlers.

mardicrowdThe only downside? While most people kept partying the night away, we were so exhausted by the time the parade was over, we caught a cab home and crashed. But my time in Sydney wasn’t up yet.

Next: More of Sydney!



Connect With the World Down Under

August 14, 2008

I had no intention of switching from Myspace to Facebook. Everyone I knew was on Myspace, I was all set up there, and it’s blue hues felt cozy and homey compared to the stark whiteness of Facebook.

About a year ago though I found out that Canadian Chris, who I met in Sydney, was on Facebook. If I wanted to swap messages and links and YouTube videos with him, I would have to join. Ditto English Chris, who I met in a Sydney nightclub. Also, Sparky (real name Chris, but there are already too many of them).

Pretty soon Facebook helped me to reconnect with lots of the people I met traveling, some of whom I hadn’t talked to in two or three years. I met dozens of wonderful people while traveling Australia – more people than I’ve ever met on any other trip anywhere. Why? I think it’s because the whole country caters to backpackers and student travelers. There’s an entire industry in place to help you move city to city, adventure to adventure.

Australia Zoo

Australia Zoo

That (back)pack mentality may make it harder for you to get off the beaten path, but it also makes it much easier to meet likeminded travelers, to socialize with large groups of people who are enjoying the same experiences, and to find great deals. After all, the larger the market, the more options you have, and the more power you have when choosing where to spend your travel dollars.

Two of the best ways to see Australia with limited fuss and maximum enjoyment are a Contiki tour and the Oz Experience bus. Contiki provides tours with set schedules and activities. If you have a set amount of days and specific sights you want to see, Contiki can get you around and hit the highlights with almost no independent planning required on your part.

Oz Experience gives you more control over your schedule. It’s an open bus pass – you hop on and off buses when it suits you. You can choose to stay in one place for two days, two weeks or two months. There are some restrictions, and the buses may not always fit your schedule as precisely as you’d like, but you are guaranteed to meet a ridiculous number of other backpackers as you go.

Learn more about both of these options from Travel CUTS, or call an agent for more details.


New Year’s Eve Around the World

December 18, 2007

London fireworksWherever you are on December 31st, chances are there’s something exciting happening. Unless you’re home with your parents. Then I can’t really help you.

If you don’t have plans yet, there’s still time to get together with friends, or make new friends, or call up old friends and plan a reunion.

Spending the New Year Down Under? Visit to find out where to see fireworks or get your dance on in Sydney, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth, or somewhere in between.

If you’re in Edinburgh, you have to do Hogmanay, and in Dublin, Ireland the party will be all over the place. London will have its share of fireworks along the Thames, but if that sounds too chilly for you, how about celebrating Festa de Iemanjá on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro?

If you’re looking for fun in Tokyo, Paris, Reykjavik, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Singapore, or even boring old New York, this article on New Year’s Parties Worldwide can give you more details.


Juvenile Justice Abroad – Part Three

October 25, 2007

Sydney Opera HouseMissed the beginning of my Mugged in Australia story? Read Part One and Part Two. 

The afternoon of our conference I walk from Central Station down Elizabeth Street, crossing to the other side of Cleveland Street into Redfern. The PCYC building is just a few blocks in. There’s nothing spectacular about the outside, but inside the walls are covered. Any space that isn’t decorated with a bright mural or student artwork is used for announcements: community events, support groups, hotlines for abuse, alcoholism and depression, dates of local plays and concerts.

I find Liz in a bright blue and yellow classroom she’s setting up for us. Six chairs are arranged in a circle. Biscuits and tea bags are laid out on a table behind us.

The boy arrives next, just walks into the room. He parks his bike in another room and comes in. Liz introduces us and he says hello. I try to smile but I think it’s more of a grimace and he sits down at a computer and fiddles around with it while we wait.

His mother comes in. When we are introduced she shakes my hand and hers feels cold and weak. I notice a large bruise under her right eye and my stomach turns. I don’t know anything about this family. I feel out of place, far from the middle-class California suburbs I grew up in where the most controversial social issue was how to separate your recycling.

The boy’s teacher and a large, muscular constable join us. The conference happens. We take turns talking. Liz is careful to make sure that we each have our say while the others listen quietly, but the rules and etiquette of it all make the setting too formal and get in the way of any real communication.

The boy says little, not out of pride or arrogance, but because he’s 14 and has a room full of authority figures staring at him. Every now and then he looks at me, briefly. He’s not angry. He seems more curious. His eyes look me over like maybe he’s never seen an American up close before.

When I speak my voice shakes a little from emotion. I tell him about that night, what I did, how I felt. I don’t know if it makes a difference. Maybe yelling and getting angry would have more of an effect.

His mother apologises to me. I didn’t want her to. She wants him to learn from this, to do better. His teacher says he’s a good kid with almost perfect attendance. He’s just completed a five-week chef course and did well in it. She hopes this was the beginning and end of his criminal record.

It is agreed that he will commit to this school program for the next six months. He’s already been there for a year and a half, so it’s doable. His teacher will keep tabs on him. His mother will make sure he follows his curfew and other conditions of his bail, which I didn’t know he had. If he breaks any of these conditions he will go back to court, and possibly to jail. We all sign off on this plan, leave the biscuits uneaten, and put the tables and chairs back in place, turning the room into a classroom again.

Liz offers me a ride back into the city and I’m relieved not to have to walk back as it’s beginning to get dark. “Will it work?” I ask. “Do you think he’ll do ok?” She doesn’t know. Some do, some don’t. She says it doesn’t help that a lot of teenagers know people in jail, so that it doesn’t seem like a scary place to them. They have friends and family inside to hang out with.

The Department of Juvenile Justice Annual Report states that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the NSW juvenile justice system, making up around 40% of the detention centre population.

I try to picture him there, but he looks too young to go someplace so hard, someplace where the walls aren’t painted in rainbow colours. I see him in a chef’s hat instead, working in a kitchen, making friends, having some money to bring home to his family. I wonder which picture of himself he has.

beach“Well, enjoy the rest of your time in Australia!” Liz says. I thank her and she drives off, leaving me in the middle of the city. Darling Harbour is to the west, the Opera House straight ahead, my place near the beach to the east. I think about all of the sights on my list of things to see in Australia, the people I wanted to meet: Surfers and koala bears and bushmen and backpackers. But not this kid. This isn’t the cultural experience I planned to have. It won’t go into my photo album, but it’s the one that will stay with me the longest.