New Year’s Eve in The Great Barrier Reef

Our last stop in Australia was Cairns – where we would relax by the sea and spend the New Year’s Eve.

The tropical north, Cairns is a laid back city in Queensland. It is a popular tourist destination because of its access to one of the seven natural wonders of the world – Great Barrier Reef. From Cairns, you can also visit the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.

There is a growing interest in Cairns from the Chinese leisure market and you can actually see the effect of Chinese people and culture all around the city. As the tourism plays the major part of Cairns economy, we felt like people use this opportunity to charge money for everything. It is hard to plan a budget travel in Cairns if you want to see the sights and attractions.

The airport is very close to the city center. You can watch planes landing and departing from the coastal boardwalk called Esplanade Boardwalk. Unfortunately it is prohibited to swim in the sea as there are seasonal stingers which are deadly jelly fish, and saltwater crocodiles. Instead, you can flock to Esplanade’s spectacular lagoon which is a 4800 square meter salt water swimming pool packed by backpackers, children and families. Swimming is allowed between 6:00am and 10:00pm daily so you can even enjoy the moonlight while you are in the pool at the evenings when the weather cools down. The lagoon is surrounded by free electronic BBQ facilities where families and friends gather around. Having picnic in parks seems like a very common activity in Queensland, however people are not allowed to consume alcohol in public areas.

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The Lagoon

Restrictions and prohibitions such as walking dogs, smoking, consuming alcohol, bringing glass in some designated public areas are valid in Queensland just like New South Wales. So be careful about signs and behave accordingly.

Where to Stay:

You have a few options in terms of accommodation areas in Cairns. If you are looking for luxurious resorts, you may want to prefer Palm Cove or Port Douglas. Port Douglas is around 40 minutes away from the city center while Palm Cove is a bit further on the north. There are designated areas in the sea where people can swim, as stinger nets are designed to protect swimmers from stingers.

Another option to stay at is Fitztroy Island. It is located 29 kilometers south-east of Cairns, with transfers taking only 45 minutes by ferry (75 AUD). You can stay at the beautiful Fitztroy Island Resort or go for Camping. The sea is amazing, and there is no stinger nets in the sea. There may be less of a danger but you should still be careful.

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Fitztroy Island

Having stayed in the center – Cairns Plaza Hotel – I would definitely choose to stay in Fitztroy Island next time. Cairns Plaza Hotel was an old city hotel with a few amenities. The pool is very small and no one really uses it. The breakfast was also below average and there are no safe boxes in rooms. If you want to keep your personal valuables in the safe at the reception, you need to pay 7 AUD/day. Plus, the receptionist told us to call our tour company to confirm our pick up place from our room and we were charged another 7 AUD for 2 minutes of local call while checking out. We would at least expect to be informed about the charges of phone calls – or the help of reception for a simple tour pick up confirmation.

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Cairns Plaza Hotel

The last hotel we stayed in Cairns was Rydges Esplanade Cairns Resort, and it was much better than the Cairns Plaza Hotel which was just next door. It was January 1st, and the hotel restaurant/bar was charging extra 15% on all bills even though you have to go to the bar and order your food yourself.

Cape Tribulation and Daintree Wilderness Tour:

We booked this tour via Qatar Airways Holidays website. We really enjoyed the tour as we finally got to touch koalas during our visit to Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat. Not only holding cute koalas, but also feeding kangaroos were amazing!

After having our pictures taken with koalas, we headed to Daintree National Park and the Daintree River. After a tropical lunch at the Daintree Rainforest, we took a walk along the beach where rainforest meets the sea (Don’t ever think about swimming there as there are crocs). After having a bit more walk in the Rainforest by seeing mangroves, spiders and even ants with green butts (the tour guide said they are tasty!) we took a river cruise to spot crocodiles. Crocs we’ve seen were not really big as we expected but it was a nice tour overall.

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Mt Alexandria Lookout

Great Barrier Reef 

As we like to dive, we thought spending the New Year’s Eve on a boat in the middle of The Great Barrier Reef would be a good idea. So we booked a 2 days/1 night live aboard tour with Cairns Dive Centre, paying 500 AUD.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a backpacker tour rather than a once in a lifetime experience.

First of all, the tour was too expensive for what we got. The rooms were dirty, old and stinky, the boat wasn’t well maintained, dives were chaotic and most importantly, dive masters/guides are not included in the price of a diving tour.

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Kangaroo Explorer – where we spent 2 days in The Great Barrier Reef

We felt like they constantly cared about making more money on us rather than providing a good service. They charge extra for Go Pro hire, pictures taken under the water (20 AUD/picture), dive guides (15 AUD per person even if you dive with 8 people with a single guide) and courses if you want to get an advanced license during your trip. The instructors didn’t seem to care too much, which didn’t give us the feeling of truly being welcomed there. It was like a commercial boat causing hectic for boat residents as new divers arrived/left every morning.

The food was good and plenty. You would have to pay extra for soft drinks and alcohol.

Once we arrived the boat by a smaller one, we were a bit disappointed by the fact that we were stuck in that boat on The New Year’s Eve. Well, we went to sleep on our plastic covered beds at 10:00 AM anyway, but you’d expect a bit of quality after paying such an amount of money for such a tour to one of the seven natural wonders of the world right?

Still, sitting under billions of Southern stars with no phone distraction on the last evening of 2016 was still enjoyable and special. At the end of the day, it is not where you are but who you are with!

When it comes to the reef itself, we were also a little bit disappointed with what we saw. It might have been the case because either we were not on the outer reef, or we were too spoiled by having dived in other countries such as Maldives and Indonesia (Gili Islands). We saw some sharks, turtles, coral gardens but not as plentiful as expected. The visibility was also not great but that can of course change with seasonality.

On our return back to Cairns, they couldn’t organise the drop off shuttle, so we had to wait for the second bus, sitting on the pavement at the harbour. It proved one more time that the 4 stars level payment was for only a tour with backpacker standards.

Tip:

If you are not into backpacking style travel,  we don’t suggest a live aboard tour to Great Barrier Reef with Cairns Dive Centre. Instead, you may consider taking other options as below:

1- Taking a helicopter tour for a good view from top of the reef (300-350 AUD from Cairns)

2- Taking a daily diving/snorkelling tour (100-150 AUD)

We flew back home the next day, leaving Australia with crazy memories – and the curiosity to see more of it.

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Uluru: The Spiritual Heart of Australia

After spending 4 days in Sydney, we flew to Ayer’s Rock(Uluru) to see the famous rock formation and have once in a life time experience ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner under the stars.

Known as Northern Territory’s Red Centre, Uluru (Aboriginal and official name) is sacred to indigenous Australians and is thought to have started forming around 600 million years ago. Located in the heart of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the rock originally sat at the bottom of a sea, but today stands 348m above ground.

The spiritual heart of Australia, Uluru is notable for appearing to change colour at different times of the day and year, most notably when it glows red at dawn and sunset. We were so excited to have a sparkling wine and Christmas dinner watching the amazing sunset and billions of southern stars, however, Uluru welcomed us with a heavy rain and damaging flash floods, described as a once-in-a-half-century weather event! It was unbelievable while we were warned about the really hot desert climate before planning our travel.

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Getting Around:

First of all, if you are flying to Uluru-Ayer’s Rock from Sydney, sit on the plane’s left side so you can see the rock from top before landing.

Arriving at Ayer’s Rock airport, we were welcomed with a few buses ready to take us to our hotels for free. As there are 4 hotels which were all managed by Ayers Rock Resort, it was a hassle free transportation from the airport to the Outback Pioneer Hotel.

Check in was smooth but the room we had was pretty far from the reception area. After settling in, we received a letter from the tour organisation company for the cancellation of Sound of Silence dinner which was supposed to take place on the same evening. The biggest highlight of our Australia travel was ruined as it was going to take place indoors in a hotel instead – not under stars in a romantic set up. That was the only reason we flew to Uluru and arranged a transportation to Alice Springs.

Knowing that we are leaving Uluru and heading to Alice Springs the next day, we headed to the town centre to check if there is any other tour or even a rental car so that we could drive to the national park and see the actual rock. But it was impossible, all cars were rented out and tours were fully booked. We headed back to the hotel with the free shuttle, on our bare feet as it was raining like crazy.

Tip: If you don’t want to be limited with tours and free shuttles, it is better to rent a car in Uluru. Also, Uluru tours don’t include the entrance fee to national park (25 AUD) so make sure to ask this to your tour organiser beforehand.

Where to stay in Uluru:

There are only 4 hotels/campgrounds in the area, all managed by Ayers Rock Resort. Sails in The Desert seemed like the most popular one, however Outback Pioneer Hotel was more affordable even though it was 200 Euros per night.

Outback Pioneer Hotel was below average as it was very old and has only a few amenities. There is a free shuttle that goes around all hotels and the town centre where you can book tours, shop souvenirs or buy groceries. The hotel has a bar and an open bbq area, and it is the only place visitors of Uluru can take away alcohol. Alcohol consumption is prohibited for locals so you have to buy your alcohol yourself.

The reception was so crowded and there was a chaos. Imagine a small reception hall with towels on the ground so that people can dry their feet. Luggages on the other side – waiting to be transported to the rooms and of course people waiting for their tour buses, shuttles or check in/out times.

It wasn’t worth the money as we ended up leaving the spiritual centre by not even managing to approach the rock, and waiting in the hotel wasn’t really fun as well because of all the chaos and limited number of facilities.

Sounds Of Silence Dinner:

We were picked up by buses and taken to the Sails in The Desert Hotel. There was unlimited sparkling wine, cocktails and aboriginal dance show in the cocktail room, however, we were so disappointed by being stuck in a closed area while it wasn’t even raining outside at that moment. While searching for options to see the actual rock, we met a hotel employee who offered us his car for the next morning after hearing our stories, and we agreed to come to the hotel to pick it up first thing in the morning.

Later on, we were moved to another room for dinner. The food was good but it wasn’t worth 230 AUD per person. Well they credited 50 AUD of it back to the hotel stay but the dinner was not worth 130 Euros at all.

Next morning, we woke up early so that we could walk to the hotel to pick up the nice guy’s car. But leave walking on the road to reach the guy aside, even getting out of our room was almost impossible. The shuttle also starts to run at 10:00 AM so we had no other choice than forgetting about the rock.

After checking out, we sat outside at the bar for hours, and waited for our shuttle to Alice Springs. Everywhere was wet, and we were sitting on the tables trying to protect us from the rain – wishing it also washes all the disappointments away from us.

As the roads were flooded, the bus driver skipped to pass through Kings Canyon and we reached Alice Springs after 6 hours at the evening. On the way, we stopped at the Middle of Australia and saw some emus at Erldunda Roadhouse onsite emu enclosure.

 

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When to Visit Uluru:

If you want to avoid the rain and experience the real Uluru, visit between May and September.

Where to stay in Alice Springs:

After checking in DoubleTree by Hilton at Alice Springs after a long and wet journey, we went downstairs to eat at the The Deck Eatery & Bar. We were almost declined to be seated as we didn’t have a reservation even though we were hotel guests. Disappointment followed us when the waiter didn’t get the order properly and showed up with something else after minutes of waiting.

There was another hotel next to ours, Lasseters – you may want to prefer this one if you are interested in casinos. Next to DoubleTree, there is also a hotel called Desert Palms which seemed more affordable and family friendly.

Alice Springs is known as a popular gateway for exploring the Red Centre and Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve is one of the main point of interests in the city. Some people prefer to stay in Alice Springs and take tours to Uluru while we preferred the other way. Visitors can also climb to the top of Anzac Hill for sweeping views over Alice Springs and the distant MacDonnell Ranges.

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During our day visit, we walked to the centre and Telegraph Station. The road was empty and we were expecting to see some kangaroos on the way – as the bus driver from Uluru suggested. Taking the Riverside Path along the Todd River, we’ve seen one kangaroo and a snake around the bush grounds. Rivers in Alice Springs and around are generally dry, but they still call them rivers.

If you are interested in riding bicycles,  there are bikes available for hire at the Trail Station Wi-Fi Café, when you reach the top at The Telegraph Station.

The day was over, and we were ready to take off to Cairns to see our second highlight of our trip – The Great Barrier Reef.

Christmas in Sydney

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Hello 2017!

I feel like I am one of the luckiest people in the world who gets to travel and see all the amazing places, cultures and even various natural habitats in the world.

I’ve spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Australia – or Down Under as some call it. It required a lot of planning as we had must-see locations in mind such as Uluru, Great Barrier Reef and of-course Sydney. Considering three of them are in different states in Australia, we had to book a few internal flights and stick with our plan. Australia is a huge country and you cannot just drive around the continent in a short time.

In this post, I will write specifically about Sydney and how to get the best out of it. 4 days were enough to see the main sights of it but you can do more if you want to spend more time on beaches or learn how to surf.

But first of all, here is our itinerary for those who wish to experience the same:

  • 4 days in Sydney (New South Wales)
  • 1 day in Uluru or Ayer’s Rock (Northern Territory)
  • 1 day in Alice Springs (Northern Territory)
  • 4 days in Cairns (Queensland)

Located on Australia’s east coast, Sydney is the most populous city of Australia. Despite being one of the most expensive cities in the world, it is one of the most liveable ones.

Visa:

You will need a visa depending on your nationality/passport.

For application and details, click here.

When to visit Sydney:

Summer starts with December, and thanks to Christmas and New Year’s, December has been the best time to visit Sydney. It attracts many tourists this season but you won’t regret visiting the city during the peak time thanks to the summer joy and lively atmosphere.

Australians are friendly, and the city has a lot to offer to its visitors and residents. Looking for a beach? Select one of the amazing beaches like Bondi, Manly or Coogee. Looking for a place for a Sunday picnic? Head to Royal Botanic Gardens or Chinese Garden of Friendship. Sights? From Sydney Opera House and The Rocks to Darling Harbour, the city itself is a sight!

As it was Christmas time, the streets were surrounded by Christmas trees and people wearing short sleeved Santa suits and hats. There was a huge Christmas tree in Martin’s Place and Christmas Carols as well as light shows in St Mary’s Cathedral. Even though Christmas was celebrated all around the city, new year’s eve seemed like a bigger deal.

Rules of Sydney

Not only Sydney but the whole country has a set of rules like no smoking and drinking in public areas, parks and beaches. Tobacco is extremely expensive and cigarette sale is done secretly in shops. As we heard, one pack of cigarette is around 25 AUD so it’s better to bring your own if you are a smoker.

Is it expensive?

The city is indeed very expensive. Alcoholic drinks at bars are starting from 8 AUD (for a 0,3 lt beer) and 10 AUD (for a glass of wine). If you fancy a traditional fish and chips, you pay at least 20 Australian Dollars. Speaking of traditional fish and chips, the city and people has such a British influence. People dressing up, girls showing a lot of skin while going out for clubbing reminded me a lot of London streets at nights.

Getting Around:

One thing that amazed me about Sydney was the nicely designed cafe and bars, and company office building entrances! There is an impressive architecture with modernist high rise buildings and the mixture of old and new. The city is very easy to navigate and the good public transport helps you not to get lost. If you cannot afford traveling around by taxis or Uber, you can get an Opal Card from any supermarket – top it up with 10-20 AUDs and use busses, ferries (not all) and trams.

Where to Stay:

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on transportation to see around, select a hotel from The Rocks area where you can walk around and to Circular Quay where all ferries leave. We stayed at The Grace Hotel which was a bit old but a convenient one. We could walk to Darling Harbour in 10 minutes, to the Circular Quay and The Rocks area in 15 minutes.

So here is what we’ve done in the full 4 days in Sydney:

Day 1:

After taking a 30 minutes bus ride, we arrived to the famous Bondi Beach. The beach is huge but you can swim only in the designated areas as there are surfers everywhere. You may decide to sit on the grass area or on the sandy beach but smoking, eating and drinking are not allowed even though we saw a few people drinking beers and smoking weed.

There is not much to see on the northern end of Bondi Beach, but if you walk towards the south, you will see a huge pool in the Bondi Iceberg’s Club, where people can swim for free. I would suggest passing by the cafe upstairs and having a sip of sparkling while watching the view from the top.

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After resting at the Iceberg’s, we headed to the cliff top coastal walk (6 km) which took us through stunning views, beaches, parks, cliffs, bays and rock pools. Walking around 2 hours, we reached to The Coogee Beach after passing through Tamarama and Bronte Beaches. The board walk also takes you past Waverley Cemetery, the most scenic burial ground in the world and it is impossible to be impressed by the views of it.

When we reached The Coogee Beach, we had fish and chips at The Coogee Pavilion and had some drinks on the terrace. When it started raining, we headed back to the city centre.

Day 2:

It was the day to see Australian animals! We were so excited!

Taronga Zoo – the city zoo of Sydney is located on the shores of Sydney Harbour. 28-hectare zoo is a home to 4,000 kinds of animal species but you get to see them only if they are awake or if they decide to show up. All Australian animals were present but seeing only a few koalas was a bit disappointing. As we were informed, touching Koalas is prohibited by law in The New South Wales. So we thought the spectacular views of beautiful Sydney Harbour from the zoo was more impressive than the zoo itself.

The transportation to the zoo is not very difficult. All you need to do is to arrive the Circular Quay and catch the ferry to Taronga Zoo wharf.

Tip: If you are planning to celebrate your birthday at Taronga Zoo, have yourself registered on Taronga Zoo’s website and enter the zoo for only 1 AUD. You will receive a birthday batch at the entrance but don’t expect more than this.

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After we went back to the city centre, we changed and headed to a dinner at The Bennelong Restaurant at The Opera House. Bennelong Restaurant offers lunch, pre/post theatre, supper and dinner menus. We had the pre theatre menu as there was no availability for dinner time but the food we had was AMAZING! I probably had the most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life! So here is our favourites for the 3 course pre theatre menu:

Entree: Grilled Tasmanian Octopus

Main: Macleay Valley suckling pig confit

Dessert: Five textures of Queensland mango or chocolate cake.

When we were done with our dinner, we moved to the bar and continued with drinks, and ended the night. If you are planning to dine at Bennelong Restaurant, make sure to make your reservation weeks-even months before so that you can enjoy your food at the time of your choice.

Day 3:

Day 3 was another day full of walking and discovering the city. There is so much to see in Sydney and you can’t get enough of it.

After leaving the hotel, we walked around The Darling Harbour, then headed towards The Rocks area. The close proximity to Circular Quay and the views of the iconic Harbour Bridge, as well as the historic nature of many of the buildings, makes the Rocks very popular with tourists. The Rocks Market operates each weekend, and you can buy some Australian arts and souvenirs from there.

Following the way from The Rocks area, we entered in The Contemporary Art Museum. You have to pay to see some of the exhibitions but don’t miss the view from the terrace.

After the museum, we walked to The Royal Botanical Garden to rest a bit and headed towards The Pitt Street for some shopping. In Australia, streets with shops are called ‘malls’, and “Pitt Street Mall” of Sydney is Australia’s busiest shopping precinct.

After a long day walking, we went to see the Christmas Carols in front of St Mary’s Cathedral in The Hyde Park. We sat down, listened to the chorus and watched the amazing light shows on the cathedral with hundreds of other people.

Day 4:

We spared the last day for Manly Beach. To reach Many Beach from The Circular Quay, you have 2 options to take. The fast ferry costs 8,60 AUD and it takes 20 minutes while the normal ferry costs 7,50 AUD and it takes 30 minutes to get there.

After arriving the Manly Wharf, walk towards the beach from the shopping street full of surf and sports clothing shops. If you are hungry, eat in one of the restaurants on the coastal road and then head to the beach to relax. The sea was cold and there were surfers so we didn’t swim.

For the evening, we had dinner at Jamie’s Italian which didn’t meet our expectations at all. The food was Italian interpretation rather than real Italian. It was’t very expensive (60 AUD for 3 course dinner on Christmas) but it was not at international star chef level. Not recommended, but make sure to make a reservation online if you are willing to have a dinner there.

Next morning, we flew to Ayer’s Rock which was another adventure. So I will write it all in my next blog post.