Christmas in Sydney, a day at the races and a shark warning!
Saturday 10th February 2018
So we had completed our drive from Brisbane to Sydney, taking in some amazing places on our road trip. We had arrived in Sydney. We dropped our bags off at the BIG Hostel before returning the car to the airport and catching the train back to the city.
At first I thought there had to be some mistake. But I checked and questioned the cashier. Yes it was correct. It was going to cost close to £40 for a 10-minute train journey! We were horrified and baffled by the cost but knowing it would be pretty much the same for a taxi or Uber but sitting in the city traffic we decided we had no choice.
Granted the trains are fancy, double deckers and the seat backs move so you never have to go backwards but really the cost is preposterous. We soon discovered that this is a tourist trap and that there are ways round it if you are creative with an Opal card and get off at certain stops before getting back on. It's naughty really and given what we have on the tube for a fraction of the cost (although substantially less fancy I'll admit) I can't say I thought the cost was justified.
We arrived at our hostel and I realised that this was going to be tricky for us. I had really been looking forward to it as it had good reviews for families and a great location and the thought of being somewhere for two weeks was exciting as I was looking forward to actually unpacking and having things put in proper places.
How wrong I was.
We were essentially in a dorm room that was packaged as a "family room" but aside from having our own bathroom there was nothing family friendly about it. Bunk beds and a teeny double bed. One small wire rack with four shelves and a tiny rail with about 8 hangers. No unpacking and putting my things in lovely drawers then. The bathroom was tiny and again had no storage which for us all was annoying as we have lots of bathroom stuff.
I was really disappointed but on the plus side we had received a few parcels from home which was super exciting!
My mum had sent a box of things that we had packaged up before we left and had made up a box herself of all lovely things, treats like chocolate oranges and my favourite biscuits, as well as Christmas trinkets for us all - head boppers with Christmas trees and reindeer on, an elf hat for Nikki and little bell earrings for me. It was so lovely getting things from home and Darcy was especially excited to get new books as she reads non stop!
As well as the parcel from my mum was an amazing parcel from one of my friends - Rachel - who had sent out Christmas cards from friends at school and more treats. The girls were just thrilled to have special letters from their friends and it made me really emotional seeing them opening them and hearing the lovely words from friends at home.
I had to really be brave opening mine as it really made me nostalgic for home and exacerbated the homesickness I was already feeling given the festive period. It was such a thoughtful thing though and meant so much to us - we even put the cards up to make our bleak little room feel a bit more Christmassy. I'd been hoping to get a little tree to decorate but after seeing our room we really didn't have room for one at all much to my disappointment.
We went out for a walk and found the Paddington markets which was fun to look around. We wandered around the mall above it finding a few extremely cool eclectic shops and a Poundland equivalent where we got some cheap Christmas decorations for our room. We returned and put some Christmas songs on my phone and decorated. For a few minutes it was a tiny bit like home as the girls coloured Christmas pictures and I hung the cards up.
The hostel itself was fine and if I was a solo or young couple travelling it would have been pretty good. Actually if it was just for a night or two I would go back, but two weeks was too much to spend here.
The kitchen was just too small for the amount of rooms and the fridges were not clean enough, actually the whole kitchen wasn't clean enough for me to want to cook in it. This had big cost implications for us as we don't want to eat out every lunch and dinner but it was difficult to see how you could cook for a family in the kitchen. Similarly at breakfast there wasn't enough room for everyone to sit. The girls would get off from their stool to get a drink and come back to find someone else sitting in it!
It was a good lesson for the girls though, they did their own washing up and realised how annoying it is when other people leave their mess. Honestly some people were so lazy just leaving their stuff and some not young enough to claim innocence!
The hostel was also a lesson learned for us in some ways as it was booked so long ago - I was so worried about accommodation at Christmas in Sydney and two weeks sounded reasonable to spend in the city. Having travelled for four months by this point we'd really got to know what we like to have in our accommodation and the hostel just didn't tick enough boxes. Actually neither did the city as we've realised we much prefer to be at a beach or near a forest for random walks. We only ever book somewhere for a couple of nights and then extend if we like it but there was no getting out of this! Still it was 13 sleeps and we knew we could manage it as the time flies when you're travelling!
We thought long and hard about what to do on Christmas Day in Sydney. There's a lot of choice, the Taronga Zoo is open and is a popular choice, picnics in the park, bbq at the beach, shelling out on a fancy hotel for a fancy lunch, but nothing was quite sitting right for us. We didn't want to necessarily recreate our Christmas at home but neither did we want to spend hundred of dollars eating something we might not enjoy, nor did I want to get dressed up. Other ideas had their own logistics issues, we would have to get a taxi on Christmas Day to get to the beach, most of all we just didn't know what we wanted to do to celebrate.
After a few nights at the hostel we packed ourselves off to an Airbnb for two nights over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as the thought of the hostel was just a bit too depressing. It was the best thing we could have done, we found ourselves at a pretty brand new block of flats over a Woolworths (yes they still exist down under but they are more like Tesco) which meant one thing - Christmas food shop!!
Having decided not to try to emulate our own "home" Christmas we found ourselves doing just that. I bought everything - including sprouts!! The only thing I couldn't find was pigs in blankets. Sacrilege to have a Christmas dinner without this most British of traditions so I bought sausages and bacon and hoped for the best.
Christmas morning arrived and the girls' joy at opening stockings less than a quarter of the size of their usual ones was overwhelming. The girls did not feel that they had missed out, nor did they turn into brats demanding more presents (as I had secretly feared) instead they actually treasured the items they had got rather than discarding them to move onto the next and the next and so on...
It was heartening and reassuring and I have kept the stockings that they had to remind them when we get home. I don't want to return and be overcome with the need to buy a trillion presents, I can't bear the thought of more "stuff" in our lives. We need to learn that we can be happy with less stuff. Presents don't measure the love for our children. And they don't equate presents with love. They are just as happy to receive less as they don't even realise. It's been a big lesson for me to understand this and from now on there will be just as much giving but with less stuff from shops.
We had a brilliant Christmas Day, stuffed ourselves silly with food (no the pigs in blankets did not turn out well), playing games, watching Christmas films and eating Roses on the sofa - ok the flavours were different - but sounds pretty much like our Christmas at home! It was great and although I was expecting to feel really emotional at being away from our families I had only one moment of welling up before enjoying the day.
I waited up to FaceTime people at home, that's the tricky part being so far away is waiting for everyone at home to catch up! We spoke to our families before heading to bed and packing up the next day to return to the hostel.
We discovered that the Royal Randwick racecourse holds Boxing Day races that are free for international passport holders - so we decided to take full advantage as we all love a day at the races at home.
It was just like being at Royal Ascot with people dressed up (albeit very few Australians as I think we heard more British and Irish accents than we had on our whole trip so far!), wine flowing, people cheering and horses galloping. It was really great to do something so different but so like home, reminiscent of all those summers at Ascot.
It was however a bit more boring for the girls. Although it wasn't billed as a family race day we had expected there to be a bit more entertainment for the children as there is on family days in England. However there wasn't anything and we all felt that it could have benefited from a bouncy castle or carousel and made it more family orientated.
We had such fun though and returned on the free shuttle back to central station which is just a short walk across the road from the hostel, having had a very low-cost day out (apart from the betting haha) which is always welcome!
The following day the girls wanted to spend their Christmas money so we headed into the city centre for them to buy their most wanted items. A handbag and hamster keyring for Kitty and books and stationery for Darcy. They both also chose to sponsor an animal with WWF with some of their money which I was really surprised and delighted by! I think the lure of a soft toy was as appealing as the animal charity itself and they are happy to know that they have a pangolin (Darcy) and sloth (Kitty) toy waiting for them when we return!
Nikki had booked us tickets to see the Sydney Sixers in action at a 20/20 cricket match at the famous Sydney Cricket Ground so we went along to enjoy the pre match fun ahead of the games itself.
Wow! What entertainment and fun they put on! Face painting, bowling games, surfing machines, free goody bags of all sorts (dog food anyone?) and the famous bucket heads all being distributed. We gathered hot pink leis and flags and had our faces painted and the girls had their hair sprayed pink before settling in to watch the match.
It was a great atmosphere and even thought the Sixers lost it was such a fun evening and good to learn the rules of cricket! We walked home as the traffic was heavy and chatting away on nights like this we realised how geared up for sports countries like Australia are. It may be the more temperate climate but there is a dedication to sports, in schools and communities that you just don't see in the UK. Here children are much more engaged in a range of sports and there's so much more opportunity for them to practice and play.
The following day we decided to partake in the Bondi to Coogee beach walk. It's a long trail (about 6km) with plenty of steps and it winds its way along the coast passing several of Sydney's best beaches.
We hopped on the bus to Bondi and took a few moments to take in the scene at the world famous Bondi Beach. It was rammed though! So busy and bustling with surfers, bathers and sun worshippers. Overhead the helicopters buzzed away shark spotting and we began our walk.
We passed the iceberg pool at Bondi where the pool meets the sea and again it was super busy. It looked so inviting in the heat but we had only just begun and had no time to stop!
We made our way past the many beaches, each with their own interesting history - Tamarama beach, for example, which had an amusement park and even an elephant for rides in the late 1880s and early 1900s.
Then walking through the most incredible cemetery at Waverley where sculptures and crypts looked more like art exhibitions than graves, this unbelievable cemetery has various famous and infamous residents as well as the most stunning views over the bay. I can't think of a nicer final resting place and would happily have spent hours here. I've always enjoyed walking through cemeteries which may seem weird to some, ever since discovering Brookwood Cemetery in my younger days. There's something peaceful about them and I always think of the people saying goodbye to their loved ones whether it was last year or hundreds of years ago. They may be full of sadness but they're also full of love too, to me.
We walked through Clovelly and Bronte beach, finally arriving at Coogee where a huge beach was packed but less so than Bondi. The beachfront was busy with pubs and restaurants and we sat down for a well earned dinner before catching the bus back. Over 17,000 steps and a super day out, we really enjoyed this walk.
Sunday was New Year's Eve, and not being huge fans of the day we decided to have a lazy day and head out to Manly on the ferry. The Opal Travel card has a cap on it on Sundays so you can travel by bus and ferry and never get charged more than a few dollars. The ferry was busy and so was Manly but we enjoyed strolling though the town before deciding to sit on the beach and watch the waves. Swimmers are restricted to being between the flags where the lifeguards are so the girls paddled as we sat further away from the crowds.
Suddenly the sound of an air raid siren was deafening, we looked around wondering what was going on before hearing the announcement over the tannoy that "a shark has been sighted and it may be heading this way, please evacuate the water. Please let others know, if you see someone and they don't seem to understand English please advise them to leave the water now. "
We sat for a moment but there was no mad rush, we fully expected Jaws-like scenes with people screaming and fleeing for their lives but instead people ambled out of the water. One dad even having a discussion about how he was happy for his kids to keep swimming despite the lifeguard's insistence that they come in!
It was quite scary to us given our placid British beaches and certainly a reminder that the shark spotters in the sky have safety at the forefront of their minds. Whilst shark attacks are rare and drownings occur more frequently, water safety in Australia is a big deal.
We didn't want to leave but with it being New Year's Eve and knowing that Sydney harbour would be getting jam packed with revellers we headed back to the ferry. The queues were huge and we were worried we wouldn't get on although fortunately we did. The ferry after us was the last one and there was no way every one in the queue behind us would be getting back to Sydney via the ferry.
As expected the harbour was swarming with people and it was not even 4pm. We decided to head back as staying out on a pavement for eight hours to watch 10 minutes of fireworks is not high on our agenda. We've never really celebrated NYE as Nikki always had football on New Year's Day and it's always been something of an anticlimax to me so we've always happily gone to bed early. Whilst we felt we should be doing something, old habits die hard and after picking up a takeaway and heading back to the (obviously deserted) hostel we called family and friends before heading to bed.
The following day was so funny as we were able to FaceTime people at home (at almost our lunchtime) as they were celebrating midnight. I had the most hilarious FaceTime with friends all celebrating together in their fancy dress, extremely tipsy and all happy to be FaceTiming me despite the fact they couldn't hear me and were worse for wear!!
We had another treat in store as we managed to get dinner with some extended family who were in Sydney for just a few hours. Although officially my sister's in-laws, we have all been welcomed in by the Wrights as family and we were overjoyed to be able to see them on our travels.
Joseph (my sister's brother-in-law) works as cabin crew and his mum Kathy often joins him for a jaunt across the world. The girls were literally squealing with excitement to see them and for us to see familiar faces and have a hug meant so much to us all. We had the nicest dinner in an Italian at the Rocks and wandered through the harbour. It was just a few hours but it was so brilliant, a little shot of home after Christmas was just what we needed. Plus the stash of Cadbury's they had brought was very welcome as well!! We said our sad goodbyes and headed home.
Our time in the city was coming to an end and we decided to walk down to Darling Harbour. We came across a huge playground where the girls happily played and we sat and had a coffee. It was busy with it being school holidays but not horribly so and we could have spent much longer there.
We mooched our way around, marvelling at the jellyfish in the harbour and wandered around the shops and looked at restaurants. As we got closer we could see a massive submarine and a huge destroyer in the harbour with people walking about on them! We decided to investigate and found that they were part of the Australian Maritime Museum. We bought tickets and headed aboard.
Firstly we explored the submarine. It was so interesting seeing what life was like on board this submarine that had been used by the military until recently. It was tiny and cramped and the movement of the waves was more than I expected. I don't know how sailors cope being closed in like that and I have the utmost respect for anyone in the military anyway.
It was really interesting and we stayed as long as we could to look around. We then went in for the show about the Arctic before exploring the museum. The girls especially enjoyed the Arctic exhibition with its interactive games and videos to watch.
We went back outside to look around the Destroyer. It was HUGE. Another ship that had really been used by the Australian Navy, it gave us all an insight into life at sea. The tiny bunks and captain's quarters, the bridge and the huge guns on deck. It was all so much more interesting than I expected and for Nikki, whose grandfather served in the British Navy, it was particularly relevant.
We headed out just as a storm was coming in and made our way back to the hostel.
Our final day in Sydney was spent with a day trip to the Blue Mountains. We decided to get an inclusive tour as this gave us the best option without having to hire a car.
Our tour driver picked us up at 7.30am and after collecting other participants we headed off. We did all three of the options with Scenic World - the cableway, skyway and railway. It was a great way to see across the valleys and the mountains and the railway, a former mining railway used to haul coal up the mountain was great fun. So steep! We chose to go up and I can imagine going down would be even more terrifying!!
We also took in some rainforest walks and had lunch in the town of Leura. We visited the Boar Head lookout and on the way home stopped in at a wildlife park for a few hours. Whilst it was good to see some of the animals, we really have found we prefer seeing animals in the wild. Seeing ignorant people pulling branches out the way to get a better picture of a sleeping koala or trying to feed a cassowary a paper map through the fence were just two of the examples we saw and there's nothing like the thrill of spotting an animal in the wild.
We headed back via the Olympic park which now hosts all sorts of sporting and music events. It was very cool to see and I wish we'd had time to visit the aquatic centre as it looked great.
Our time in Sydney was over however and we returned to the hostel ready to pack up and head even further round the world to New Zealand!