Roaming On Road Trips

For years, the girls have been trying to organise a weekend away in the Hunter Valley but our busy and conflicting schedules – coupled with the fact that when we last tried, our accommodation went into liquidation the weekend before we arrived – made it next to impossible. Until last weekend.

We finally locked in three days we were all free and set our sights on a morning/afternoon exploring Pokolbin, followed by a couple of nights in a beautiful retreat to enjoy some quiet time with our newly purchased wine, cheese, and chocolate. Reality actually exceeded expectation and we had a wonderful time.

Leaving bright and early on Saturday morning, we made the following stops before heading to our home away from home for the weekend:

– Mooney Mooney Rest Area
– Maitland (for food supplies)
Hunter Valley Chocolate Company
McGuigan Cellar Door
Hunter Valley Cheese Company
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese (which was also our lunch stop)
Tempus Two Cellar Door
De Bortoli Cellar Door

I honestly cannot recommend Smelly Cheese highly enough. While it’s tiny and absolutely crammed with people, they have an amazing selection of cheese, condiments, cured meats, oils, crackers, etc. We spent almost $200 on things almost exclusively for the weekend. No regrets about the $25.00 sliver of French brie, it was AMAZING.

We stayed at Donnybrook Eco Retreat, in the Hillview/Valleyview tents, and it was absolutely perfect. Not only was it less than 30 minutes from welcoming that we didn’t actually leave again for the whole weekend. We’ve been glamping several times and this was easily one of our favourites to date, the attention to detail and homely touches made all the difference.

Sweeping views of the surrounding countryside; a wicker swing chair; large and comfortable beds (with chocolates on each pillow!); a gas barbecue; a fire pit (with wood and kindling provided); ensuite bathrooms for each tent; a deck area with outdoor furniture; and (my favourite) a yurt between the two tents which served as a kitchen or communal dining area. The two bar fridges came fully stocked with fresh farm eggs, bacon, jam, butter, milk, juice, pancake batter, and delicious homemade chocolate slice!

One of my favourite parts was waking up to the sounds of birds echoing through the valley – such a great incentive to get up and enjoy the sunrise. And the beautiful colours at dusk made for some excellent reasons to go exploring. Definitely made this Girls Weekend well worth the wait.

A Pirate’s Life For Me (Occasionally)

Despite my parents meeting in the Navy and having an affinity with the open water, my sea legs have let me down on two ocean-bound occasions. The first was when said parents encouraged my brother and me to join them as they sailed their yacht from Rose Bay to Kogarah Bay. We both spent all the time beyond the heads unceremoniously sick over the side while I’m sure our kin questioned their paternity. The second was when my best friend and I finally made it to the Great Barrier Reef but the water was so choppy that the majority of us lost our breakfasts before we even arrived.

That’s all very well and good, but what does that have to do with cruising? Please understand my full dilemma when one of my best friends proposed the idea of a short cruise for her 40th Birthday. There’s no way I would have turned her down (partly due to friendship, partly due to the explorer within, partly due to FOMO) but the idea of being trapped on a ship at sea for three nights with my track record was not an ideal scenario.

I am happy to report that I made it! I was not ill (or even really queasy) and it was a wonderful weekend away. All the assurance I had been given in regards to the size of the ship making it a mostly smooth ride were on point. In fact, I’d highly recommend it for something different and am glad to have crossed “cruise” off my experience list. Would I do it again? Probably not, unless it was another short one (at a bargain price) or the destination called for it (eg. Antarctica). I think more than four nights would get pretty repetitive (mostly in terms of activities and food) and I’d rather save time at sea by taking a flight.

That said, I had a great time. Sailing out of Sydney Harbour on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon was a wonderful way to kick off the getaway. And it’s pretty great to spend a weekend watching ocean sunrises and sunsets; being mesmerised by the ocean without land in sight; trying lots of different types of food (in casual or more formal settings); and I am always up for a round of bingo or trivia.

Strolling the Streets of Scotland

While I’ve always been enchanted by Scottish accents, I didn’t actually consider Scotland a top destination until my trusty travel buddy Nu put it at the top of her list. Always up for a new adventure, I started researching and realised this was not going to be a compromise on my part – Scotland should be on every travel list.

On our most recent trip to the UK, we could only spare three nights but organised to stay in Edinburgh with one full-day trip to explore the countryside. The four-hour train ride from London made our destination all the more exciting, especially when it crossed the Scottish border and we marveled at the cliffs and buildings along the east coast.

In the weeks leading up to Scotland, Nu had joked that her perfect arrival would include bagpipes and a gent dressed in full highland dress. Lo and behold, when we made our way out of the station, we could hear bagpipes on the wind and after struggling up the steps to the Royal Mile, there stood a bagpiper, kilt blowing in the breeze. It was the first of many surreal and wonderful moments in Edinburgh and Scotland.

We quickly discovered that Edinburgh was an incredibly walk-able city and spent the first and third days discovering streets, sights, and spots, at our own pace. We walked up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle; we explored Calton Hill at daybreak; we strolled through the Christmas Markets and rode the Star Flyer; we marveled at the Royal Museum of Scotland (free entry) and its spectacular view of the city from the rooftop terrace.

Being Potterheads, we visited the Elephant House for afternoon tea (J.K. Rowling spent time here writing The Philosopher’s Stone) and meandered through Greyfriars Kirk (where the author found inspiration for the names of several key characters).

Our tour was a small group of six which picked us up in Edinburgh and returned us 12 hours later. It took us into the highlands, stopping at beautiful towns, in stunning forests, by gorgeous waterfalls, and providing an illuminating (yet brief) history of the country. Our last stop was a distillery in Aberfeldy where we were treated to a tour and several drinks.

I didn’t think Scotland or Edinburgh could live up to the hype surrounding it (I’m yet to speak to someone who doesn’t enjoy everything this country has to offer) but I cannot wait to return. The open friendliness of its people especially makes it easily one of the best place I have ever visited.

 

Glamping, Gazing, and Glugging

In recent months, I’ve become increasingly interested in astro-photography. My latest lens acquisition (Tokina 11-16mm, f/2.8) has made it easy to get swept away with framing different views of the night sky. The hardest part of living in a city is finding areas free enough of light pollution to capture decent skyscapes. This is where weekend road trips come into play.

I was after a destination with low light pollution but enough charm to encourage friends along. Enter Turon Gates, a huge property about 2-3 hours west of Sydney. To make the most of our time away, we left on Friday evening and stayed in Katoomba before continuing on to Capertee on Saturday, via Leura and Lithgow.

While there are riverside and mountainside cabins, we opted for the property’s only “glam tent” which is exactly what it sounds like. A structure made with sturdy canvas, split into a main area and bathroom, replete with luxuries like heated floors, rainfall shower, sunbeds, wicker furniture, a kitchenette and wooden deck looking over the Turon River, just metres below.

The tent means you get to experience camping (gathering wood, building a fire, being petrified by animal shrieks and noises in the night) with the relief of washing away the smoke and dirt in the glorious hot shower, sip on some freshly prepared mulled wine or hot chocolate, and retire into a toasty, semi-comfortable bed.

Even before 7pm, the night sky was positively bursting with thousands of pinpricks of light, even by the flame of our roaring campfire. As city-dwellers, it was amazing enough to be surrounded by complete darkness, much less look up and see an artwork come to life in the night sky. We came for the stars, we stayed for the serenity. Fantastic weekend away.

#FlashbackFriday: Lounging and Lazing in Las Vegas (2016)

It surprised even me to learn that my most-visited city in the United States is Las Vegas. I am far from the typical party-goer I associate with those who love and embrace the ‘What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas’ mantra. In fact, I pretty much go there almost exclusively to relax.

Huh?! Relax?! In Sin City?!

Yes.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed a lot of the things on offer in and around the area (Grand Canyon, shows, Hoover Dam, walking The Strip). But it was while I did these things that I realised I really wasn’t interested in the yard glasses, poker games, gun ranges, pool parties, nightclubs, and bottomless shots.

I’d much rather be in the Venetian’s Canyon Ranch Spa Club. I’d rather be enjoying an uninterrupted view of The Strip from the top floor of Treasure Island. I’d rather be soaking in the tub of a marble bathroom at MGM. I’d rather be wrapping myself in a fluffy bathrobe in a suite at The Cosmopolitan. I’d rather be enjoying the opulent bed and luxurious bedding at ARIA. I’d rather be indulging in the extensive room service menu at the Wynn.

Which is the reason it’s usually my last stop on a US trip or a round-the-world ticket that passes through the States. It gives me a couple of days to rest up, recharge, and reflect on the trip, as well as unwinding and preparing for the journey home. No horrible hangover from this Las Vegas layover:

 

Never Get Enough of New York City

Last December saw me on my third visit to New York City and it amazes me that I can have a completely different experience each time I’m there – even in the same places!

On my first trip, we stayed in the heart of Times Square and it was overwhelming. Perfect introduction to the city that never sleeps, especially since we pulled out all the tourist stops (Rockefeller Centre, Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, Broadway, helicopter ride, etc.) but I wouldn’t do it again.

The second time, we rented an apartment in Spanish Harlem and pretended badly to be like ‘real’ New Yorkers by catching the subway, shopping for groceries at the local market, and going to see a Rangers game.

I have always wanted to be in Manhattan for Christmas (and, let’s be honest, as someone who was brought up in Australia, I was also hoping for my first White Christmas) so being surrounded by one of the most incredible cities in the world at such a magical time of year was amazing in its own right.

But we took full advantage of the time of year and checked off all the quintessential tacky Christmas in New York items; Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, Bryant Park Christmas Markets, Christmas Lunch at the Central Park Boathouse, Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree, Macy’s windows…

While we didn’t get a white Christmas, we did get beautifully crisp, sunny days on which to check out Central Park, The High Line, Grand Central, and the awesome NYC streets and scenes. It will be a hard holiday season to top.

A Truly Magical Christmas

I was introduced to Harry Potter after the seventh book had been released. Despite working at a bookstore during the release of books five, six, and seven, I’d never been even a little tempted to read about The Boy Who Lived. One of my best friends, Parker, convinced me to at least try book one and I loved it. I read it overnight and he quickly provided books two and three to continue my journey. In fact, the first time I read the series, six from seven of the books were from his collection. By book seven, I’d invested in my own beautiful hardcover set.

Of course I love Harry Potter and can (and will and have) spend hours discussing it but I love it even more because it was a constant in my life when everything else was changing. I read book one on the train home to Sydney from Newcastle after Parker and I had been stranded, following a concert. I read book two during lunch breaks while still working at the aforementioned bookstore. I read book three as I traveled to and from Melbourne in search of a place to live. I read book four as I sat waiting to see rentals open for inspection. I read book five while packing up my belongings and my life for The Big Move. I read book six in between training my replacement, teary farewells, and my “final” goodbye to Sydney. I read book seven by candlelight in my new Melbourne pad because the electricity hadn’t yet been turned on.

These are the memories in my heart when I reread the series or talk about the books or rewatch the movies or visit Harry Potter theme parks around the world. These are the passages I read for comfort when Parker moved to the other side of the world last year.  These were the sentences I chose to quote when asked to give a speech at his wedding last year. So imagine my delight when I was able to secure tickets to Dinner in the Great Hall at Hogwarts for Parker, myself, his partner, and my best friend, the week after the wedding.

The evening began with champagne and canapes in the foyer. We were then taken into a small theatre for a short film introducing the studios which brought the books to life. The screen was then raised to show the beautiful doors to the Great Hall, which opened to reveal the wonderfully decorated room and tables and beyond. Two courses of dinner followed by a very intimate studio tour, which featured props, costumes, machinery, drawings, sets, and enough magic to overwhelm even a Harry Potter skeptic.

To share something so incredible with the person who introduced me to this world was something I will never forget.