Updated: Jan 22, 2019
To leave family behind during Christmas is NOT easy. We’ve had the same traditions for over 30 years, and to leave family behind felt incredibly selfish. But, this year, it seemed appropriate. Kyle and I had been dating 11 months, and a 2.5-week adventure gave us 2.5 weeks of space without work schedules and life routines; 2.5 weeks to see what “adventure” could mean for us for a very long time.
This is what I will remember most:
1. ”Chrissy” on the beach.
When you visit Australia for Christmas, be prepared for it to feel very different than Christmas in the US. It’s the beginning of summer, so school’s out, surf’s up, and sunlight lasts forever (really - sunset was 8:43pm in Melbourne). This felt different than just a “warmer” Christmas. It felt like Christmas had competing priorities. Christmas itself seemed to put on a weaker effort, too. Though there were plenty of Christmas trees decorated around town, most were artificial, so whiffs of evergreen were noticeably absent. But, we hunted for “Chrissy” nonetheless. I was determined to get a picture with as many trees as possible, taking inspiration from Will Ferrell as resident “Elf” on this trip.
We made Christmas Day cute. I gifted us both pajama pants with T-Rex’s wearing Santa hats. Kyle made pancakes - with Nutella AND maple syrup. Then, we walked through the (swirly twirly?) St. Kilda Botanical Gardens, which I had found the day before on my morning run. Families were camped out in every spot of shade, armed with full-day picnics. Kyle and I sat in the rose garden, sharing Christmas memories from years past. Our stroll continued down to St. Kilda Beach where what to our wondering eyes should appear but a sea (and beach and lawn) of sprawling Santa hats as far as the eye could see. We missed the Chrissy memo, but were able to borrow some hats from two Japanese girls for this pic:
2. Penguins landing at Philip Island.
Early every morning, about 1000 penguins march down from their cliff-side burrows to swim up to 50 miles for their daily catch of fish. Each night, under the protection of post-sunset dim, they carefully emerge from the ocean and waddle with full bellies back up the beach and cliffs to feed their offspring. This is what locals call the Penguin Parade, which has been happening for thousands of years. We bought “Penguin Plus” viewing tickets to sit at the first point on the beach where these little angels emerge (totes worth the upgrade!). Waiting, we joked that ”Pippa the Penguin” would jump from the water with a “Laaaaadies and gentlemen...” preamble. We were/are hilarious; you had to be there.
Sure enough, at around 9pm the first penguins arrived on the beach, like little soldiers landing at Normandy. They form a small group of 10-30 birds at the shoreline, send one bold scout ashore about 3 meters, and then follow in slinky-like fashion. They repeat this advance time and time again, within inches of us humans, squawking for their offspring until they duck into their found borrow. Bands of penguins continue to emerge and slink along the path until 1am, though our viewing period only lasted one hour. I could have stayed all night.
There is no photography allowed, but this is similar to what we saw:
(As an aside, we opted for a full-afternoon bus tour from Melbourne to make the logistics easier. Neither of us are fans of tours, but this one exceeded our expectations. We learned about the history of Melbourne and detoured to Maru Animal Park, Woolamai Beach, dinner in Cowes, and golden hour at The Nobbies. Totes worth it.)
3. That sleepy koala.
Aussies are wonderful people. They remind me of Californians if Californians lived up to their reputation of being soooo “chill.” Since Aussies are so similar to the vibe of our neighbors at home, we became fascinated by what was really different about Australia - its wildlife. Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emus, platypus, and so many more animals are unique to Australia alone, and we wanted to spot as many as possible. Though we never saw kangaroos in the wild, we did see wild emus and wallabies. I had heard that koalas could be seen in the trees right along the Great Ocean Road, and I SPOTTED ONE within an hour of starting our drive from Bells Beach in Torquay!
While Kyle drove (on the left-hand side of the road - so proud), I stuck my head against the windshield to look as high in the trees as possible. "STOOOOP!" And there he was, chilling in a eucalyptus tree just as the urban myth suggested. He looked down at us looking up at him, yawned, stretched his four thumbs, and went back to sleep. Cutie.
4. Secret beaches along the Great Ocean Road.
There are amazing rock formations and cliffs along the Great Ocean Road, including the most-notable Twelve Apostles.
It is common for tourists to board a tour bus for a day, snap the obligatory pics, and return to Melbourne for bedtime. Kyle and I opted to rent a car for three days and explore this terrain at our own pace. Ever thankful, we found that discovering the beaches along the coast were even more interesting than the rocks that form it. Some beaches had great people watching, others had no people at all; one in Apollo Bay even happened to host a traveling carnival.
Unfortunately, we encountered occasional swarms of flies, too.
5. Sydney swimming pools.
The Bondi Iceberg Pools are quickly becoming famous around the world. And for good reason - they’re gorgeous.
Anyone can walk up and take a winning photo from the balcony above, but Kyle and I preferred more immersive tourism. We are swimmers, so we braved the chilly waters below for a dozen laps or so.
But what really awed us was the innumerable other pools that also dot Sydney’s coastline. The Sydney harbor and its adjoining bays and river are huge. It took us a cumulative 1.75 hours on ferries to span the full body of water from west to east. For those living in Los Angeles, that’s like having a large body of water stretch along the I-10 from Santa Monica to Downtown LA. And, all along this gorgeous harbor are outdoor, 25- or 50-meter lap pools with arguably the best views.
6. Sydney fireworks.
Sydney is the world's first major city to ring in the new year, and its fireworks celebration is arguably the best on Earth. This year, Sydney spent $5.78 million on its NYE display, just shy of Dubai's 2014 record of $6 million. Imagine six barges shooting off fireworks for 12 straight minutes, peppered with horizontal fireworks shooting sideways along the curves of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Kyle and I were in the center of it all between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Our eyes lit up in awe at midnight. We were paralyzed. Then we remembered to kiss.
We bought tickets to the city's largest LGBT NYE party, held atop the Museum of Contemporary Art. Adorned in white, this sea of queens felt the real ooh-ahh sensation. We even made friends with a sweet Seattle couple - Evan and Kullan. (Hi!)
7. The expanse of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is 1,429 miles long. Do you realize how long that is? That’s like having a huge coral reef from Boston to Miami along the US East Coast. Crazy. We hopped on a boat tour in Port Douglas with about 70 people, and rode a full 1.5 hours at top speed before arriving at the reef.
In the days preceding, a tropical cyclone "Penny" had been circling the area. The cyclone had wreaked havoc on passengers of this same boat just the day before, with about one third vomiting from windy, rough seas. Our day was perfectly calm and nearly cloudless. Unlike tourists, the reef loves cyclones like Penny. Her heavy rains cool the otherwise high water temperatures, which can "bleach" (i.e. harm or kill) coral over time. The wildlife seemed to show thanks for these rains. We saw underwater heaps and peaks of hard coral, swaying soft coral and sea anenomes, giant clams (the size of coffee tables), parrotfish, clown fish, butterfly fish, a giant Maori Wrasse fish named Donut, and so much more - in all colors of the rainbow (often on one species). It was like swimming inside National Geographic.
Kyle and I were tempted to take our first SCUBA lesson here, but snorkeling during the low tide was arguably even better.
8. Brekkie and Aperol spritz.
Australia didn't have coffee until the 1950s due to being so isolated geographically from global trade routes. In the 1980s, Aussies (or Kiwis, it's debated) invented the "flat white," a cousin to the cappuccino, and "brekkie" (i.e. breakfast) has never been the same. Kyle and I cannot remember many of our lunches or dinners, drowned out by outstanding brekkies with avocado smashes, hot jam donuts, "schmickers" slices, chorizo baked eggs, and cinnamon sugar cronuts like this:
The only thing memorable from afternoon and evening meals were Aperol and gin spritz. Melbourne had its own distillery brand (Four Pillars) which had a number of flavors of gin. If a restaurant, like The Botanist, stocked Four Pillars, we tried a gin spritz. If not, it was back to trusty Aperol. Oh and gelato. We ate so much that my mind has developed full amnesia to the flavors we ordered - as a defense mechanism.
9. Friends for whom miles don’t matter.
In Sydney, Kyle and I were able to reconnect with some great friends face-to-face. We met up with Mama V and Kristi for dinner in Sydney; Aaron in Bondi Beach; Jenny along the Bondi-to-Coogee Coastal Walk; and Jamie, Matt, and Jenny's fiancé at a biergarten in The Rocks. Aaron and Jenny are both Americans who moved to Australia temporarily to explore their own independence, and each discovered a life-long partner unexpectedly (not each other). Congrats to each of you!
Jamie, Matt, and Mama V were friends I met while on safari in Africa in 2016. We spent just nine days together, but our bonds have lasted years now. It's truly incredible what this new era of travel can do to bring you closer to strangers half way around the world.
10. This guy.
Coming full circle, was the risk worth it? Was missing out on quality family time during the most sacred holiday to take a selfish couple's trip to the other side of the Earth really worth it? Unequivocally, yes.
I love this man. He saw my stubbornness on full display during the planning process for this trip, and I saw the haphazard way he researches things to do. I think we were both nervous that our own oscillations between go-with-the-flow vibes and itinerary structures wouldn't match up from hour to hour, or day to day. But, in addition to luck, I believe we both leaned in to trust the other. We discarded our individual selfishnesses to see things, get things, and do things that would fill our phones with Instagram assets. Instead, we trusted that as long as we were together, doing things together, seeing things together, exploring together as a greater experience for the transcendent "us," we would be making the most of this trip. And, it worked.
I mean, c'mon, look at this guy. How could you not want to make him smile?
I'd be overjoyed to go to Australia again. I think New Zealand had notched up the list, too, based on how much the Aussies talked about it. Above all, I would go to the moon and back with my right-hand man. How yah goin? Good on yah.
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