Friday, November 26, 2010

pervelly, dunsborough, busselton, bunbury...

... and finally, the last installment of a whirlwind trip to the great Australian southwest.

Checking out of the YHA at Margaret River early on a Monday morning, we headed straight for the beach! Nearest to Margaret River is Pervelly, a beach bum surf village (because to call it a town would be grossly over-embellishing it) which was a tranquil bay with waves that were just nice to learn with... I think... I've never surfed, so what would I know? It was great to just take in the view and believe me, it was a very lovely view indeed.

But we had no time to waste, we had a boat to catch. So off we went to Dunsborough, where we arrived at early enough for a leisurely breakfast. It's a nice town with a kind of rich-folk-vacation-cum-retirement-home town to it. For a small town, it wasn't exactly cheap, as I mistakenly expected. Breakfast was lovely nonetheless, if you like a combination of beans and chorizos to start your day with a bang.

Ok, now for the one thing that we had come all the way to see - WHALES. Dunsborough has licensed only one operator for whale-watching tours, which I think is commendable because the Aussies really do respect nature and is fervent about keeping it natural. Hence, the controlled number of excursions will ensure minimal encroachment on wildlife habitat. Very commendable.

All safely on board a 17 metre catamaran, the Cetacean Explorer, we set off into the wide expanse of Geographe Bay and within five minutes of casting off, we are greeted by a pod of dolphins in the midst of hunting breakfast right beneath the boat! There must have easily been about 10 of them, unfazed by our presence and systematically crisscrossing the shallow water to herd smaller schools of fish for their feed. It was a truly amazing sight to see so many of them streaking full-speed right below where we stood. Oh, and here's a tip: wear polarized sunglasses, they will help you see things in things in the water a great deal better, especially on bright days.

After our first marine mammal encounter, it was then time to sight our second mammal - the southern humpback whale. I think these magnificent creatures creatures came to Geographe Bay for a summer holiday (like Germans to Cherating in the month of August) because they were everywhere! A mother with her calf, a "bunch of young boys" doing what boys do best; showing off by frolicking in the water, giving flipper high-fives and doing the backstroke. Unfortunately, the boat's hydrophone was on the blink, else we would definitely have heard some whale song.

After an amazing two hours of encountering two of the largest mammals in the sea on a clear, blue, sunny day (no less!), we were now off to Bunbury, stopping over at Busselton for a look-see. Busselton is home to one of the longest jetties in the world. At 2km in length, that is a very long walk. The length is due to the shallow depth of Geographe Bay and it had to built a long way out back in the day, so that larger boats could disembark cargo and passengers. There is also an underwater observatory at the end of the jetty, which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment at the time.

Bunbury. Another town that I would describe in exactly the same words I did with Dunsborough. But it is a much larger town though and it was here that we found a little time to do some shopping. Oh and of course, I should say that we checked into Ocean Drive Motel to find ourselves in the best room on the property! It had a huge, low window which perfectly framed a view of the sun setting on the horizon of the great Indian Ocean.

Short of anything exciting to do in a small town, we decided on a movie; Social Network. It was a nice little movie to watch but at A$18 per ticket (on a Monday night!! really??!), let's just say you could comfortably watch this on your own tv, in your own living room back in good old KL after a visit to your local "DVD shop". To be fair, the movie is a must-watch, tho I won't give any of the storyline away. It is riveting. and Justin Timberlake is so hate-able.

We woke up to grey and drizzle the next morning. Looks like the sunshine wouldn't hold out another day for us. But that didn't stop us from heading out to the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre. It is another Australian wonder of the idealistic marriage between wildlife tourism and preservation; the dolphins are wild and everything is done to preserve it that way. And I mean not in idle chatter. They actually do make sure that the dolphins are kept wild and do not spoil them by baiting them with free food. They are given little rewards of no more than 300 grams of fish a day per dolphin and never a species that is alien to Koombana Bay, where they live.

The dolphins come and go as they please, so visitors to the centre have to wait for the dolphins to come in. On that grey morning, we were graced by the presence of Levy, a 16-year old (est.) mother. The staff (mostly volunteer, some of them elderly and retired) identify the dolphins from their dorsal fins and it is amazing that they can rattle on about each individual dolphin like they were telling you about a close relative. Lingering on the beach brought a reward - Levy came back again to visit after a while. It was rainy and the water was murky, which isn't the norm in Koombana Bay, so the dolphin was understandably wary of coming too close but she was close enough. But then, how often do you get to come so close to a dolphin in the wild anyway?

And that was all the mammal encounters that we had. It was time to go. But we had one more winery to visit on the way back to Perth; Vineyard 28 (so named after the noisy parrot found mostly in Western Australia), one of the last ones you will come across from the south before you reach Perth. It's a bit of a trek of 2km on dirt road to get to the cellar door but it is a lovely property and you'll be greeted by the handsomest, friendliest brown mutt south of Perth.

By now the drizzle is easing, making the Highway #2 drive at 100/60/90/50/70/80/10 km/h ever more painful. But I was oblivious. It was Sone's turn to drive while I took a nap. And she hated it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

mandurah, margaret river, cape leeuwin, augusta...

... our Western Australia road trip begins!

First day of our trip starts off early when we head off down south towards Margaret River. Stopping off at Mandurah for a lazy breakfast, we drove around in circles for a while before settling on a random place that jumped out at us; 1957's Cafe - barracuda wrapped in bacon... heavenly.

After a lazy breakfast, it was time for the longest part of the drive - two and a half hours to Margaret River. Now, you might think that 2.5 hours is KL to Taiping... let me just correct any misconceived notion that driving long-distance driving on Australian highways are fun... unlike Malaysia, where speed limits were specially made to be lovingly broken, that is not the case in Australia... It kinda kills the joy of driving out on open highways where traffic is sparse, at best. But be warned; break the limit at your peril; Australia is where cops are watching and the coffee-money don't matter. And that is the end of my complaints about Australia, I promise.

We reach Margaret River and head straight for the YHA, our accommodation for the night. It is "at the edge of town"... which means it was one street down Main Road (which was also the Bussel HIGHWAY, fyi). The YHA was basic but the grounds were lovely with two types of parakeets frolicking in the soccer field. It was serene and the only sounds you could hear were all made by some organic organism!

Anyway, no time to lose. We had so many vineyards to visit! Eeny-meeny-miney-mo... we picked Leeuwin Estate as our first stop. Best decision of the day. Leeuwin Estate grounds were lovely and we saw our first kookaburra there. However, the cellar door experience was something else. The staff were rude and the wine was... not nice... and we weren't compelled to stay any longer, so we legged it to the next stop. It was the best decision made because every vineyard experience after Leeuwin just got better and better.

Redgate Estate - now, here's a vineyard visit that I loved. The grounds were humbler than Leeuwin but not at all in a bad way. The cellar door was cosy and the one guy manning the shop was friendly, helpful and very knowledgable. It was here that I picked up two of the most memorable items of the trip; a beautiful bottle of Cabernet Franc 2008 and a block of Jamaican Coffee Fudge... It was the best fudge IN THE WORLD!!! My regret is that I didn't realise that the best fudge on the face of god's green earth was right there in Margaret River and therefore couldn't go looking for more because we were bound by a ridiculously tight schedule.

Anyway, we had a fudge party in the car on the way to Hamelin Bay, where we encountered Eagle Rays, some of which can grow up to 2m span. The rays come close to shore and it is easy to spot from the waterline. The bay is calm and is part of the Leeuwin National Park. It seems there is some good diving/snorkelling to be had as well. If only I could get a hold of a canoe or kayak to explore the shallow waters. Take a look for yourself:

After Hamelin Bay, it was off to Augusta and Cape Leeuwin in an attempt to catch the sunset where the Southern and Indian Oceans met. It was too cold to stay for too long, and the lighthouse was closed for the day. I don't get why they promote beautiful sunsets at the cape when the lighthouse closes at 5:30 every day...

After a shot of fuel, it was then back to Margaret River for dinner at Settler's Tavern TAB. I had a big slab of moo-moo and it was gorgeous. Sone had lamb but no one would believe me if I said that she raved about the salad more than she did about the lamb!

And since kitchens close at 8:30pm and everyone's asleep by 10:30 everyday in Margaret River, I guess there was nothing else for us to do but to call it a night too...

Whales and dolphins next...

perth & perth...

... the two monkeys are at it again...

This time, the escapade to was to Western Australia. Perth is tiny. I can already imagine Sonya crinkling her nose and rolling her eyes in disagreement... "it's NOT a city" is what she would say.

Perth-lings (what DO you call people who live in Perth??) are a friendly bunch and curiously easier to understand than some other Australians that I have encountered from other parts. Things were easy to organize and get around, aside from a long queue just to clear customs to get INTO the country (Ozzites are paranoid about travellers importing unwanted critters and bugs in their bags). Car rental was booked online and pick up was easy-peasy. Even when I encountered an issue with the GPS unit I had booked, money was refunded with very little questions asked... and all done over the phone! Dang, I liked Australia already... but it was to get better!

We arrive at Shimmi's house in Bentley in time to wake the whole family up at 8:00am... after a very late night. But Niranjan was quick into action whipping up a BIG breakfast on the barbie. Washed down with beer. I am now liking Australia even more...

We all pile into my newly rented Hyundai Getz and set off for Churchlands to visit my cousin in the house that she had newly built with her hubby. It was stunning. Hardwood floors, an enormous entertainment room, a pool and a magnificent view of Herdsman Lake.

After a quick tour of the house, we pile into the car again and we are off to Cottelsoe Beach for a snack at The Naked Fig. Wonderful food, wonderful views, wonderful weather and wonderful company. The kids made friends!

After dropping off Alicia and her kids, Shimmi, little Ridh, Sone and I head off to Fremantle Market or Freo, as the locals call it. By now, it is close to 5:00pm and the sun is hanging low and the market is almost closing. But we still did manage some souvenir shopping and a small bagful of very unique honey and chilli roasted seed mix.

We drop Shimmi home to prep for a Diwali party that they were going to while Sone and I skipped off to Subiaco suburb for some highly recommended North Indian at Chutney Mary's. It was probably the best that I had ever had and trumps Northern Indian you can find anywhere in Malaysia, any day.

The following two days were spent out of town in Margaret River and Bunbury.

Upon return to Perth after two nights out of town, we pick Shimmi up and head out for a sumptuous lunch at Palais 85, in South Perth. To accompany the grand view overlooking the Swan River, we shared a seafood platter and decandently washed it all down with a glass of white wine each.

Before heading home to Shimmi's, we caught up with Alicia and kids again at San Churro in Subiaco for tea/dessert. Tasted as good as I remembered it a year ago in Melbourne.

Back at home, we attempted our first round of packing... it wasn't easy! There was a lot of weight to balance and regretted that I had only bought 15kg of check in luggage instead of of going straight for 20kg. Oh well...

Final dinner was at Siena's Pizzeria & Caffe, where we met with more fellow Malaysians on visit to Perth. Adjourning early to bed and an early rise to head for the airport and our flight home. Perth said farewell in grand fashion with an amazing sunrise, making sure that we were sufficiently stunned enough to come back for more soon.

amsterdam... a short and very hurried recap...

My first taste of amsterdam, unsurprisingly, was at Schipol International Airport. After arriving from KL on a very pleasant KLM flight, (my colleague) Connie and I landed in 9˚C at 5:30am. But that was the extent of our first encounter with Amsterdam. We were on transit and Amsterdam had to wait. So close, but yet so far beyond the immigration gates.

But after four days in Monte Carlo and work finally behind us, Connie and I were set to take Amsterdam by storm! Joined by another close friend and ex-colleague, Winnie, Connie and I were set to paint Amsterdam a bold shade of red!

The weather was pleasant enough in the day (at least in the first two days) but temperatures dropped quite drastically during the night. But we were all ready to warm ourselves in one way or another. So we checked in at Hotel Luxer, very conveniently located on Warmoesstraat which is a 3-minute walk from Centraal rail station. Right after checking in, we walked a couple of streets down and in the midst of Chinatown, we checked out Steven's Bar and had ourselves a pint of a local ale. Yummy.

Now warmer, we strolled around Chinatown and the notorious Red Light District and eventually end up having dinner at a Tibetan restaurant... it was so-so and don't remember much of the food to describe! Now EVEN warmer, we strolled to the Amsterdam Ice Bar for our -10˚C experience... we just had to take the warm winds out of our sails la. Got a photo of me doing a bad impersonation of South Park's Kenny.

All of Amsterdam is walkable. Just watch out for trams and bicycles. And if you have had too many ice beers, watch that you don't walk straight into a canal; it's cold at this time of year! We took about 20 minutes to take a really slow stroll from the Ice Bar back to the hotel, passing Dam Square and many pretty night canal-scenes along the way.

The next morning, after fueling up on McDonald's (we had to... Connie insisted that we take a picture there as well), we walked about Damrak and Haarlemstraat for some souvenir shopping. It was a rainy morning and as with any where else in Europe, rain in the morning normally means a steady drizzle and greyness for the rest of the day. No different here, unfortunately.

So we stopped in at The Coffee Company on Haarlemmerdijk for coffee; or in my case, I had the most amazing hot dark chocolate. Enough fuel for more walking and shopping before stopping for lunch at La Pampa, and Argentinian restaurant. Delicious steaks.

On our last night, we decided on watching Boom Chicago's Upgrade Or Die. American improv theatre at its Dutch best. Winnie insisted that they do a musical skit in Chinese Opera style, so that was a refreshing breath of originality.

Our last morning began with a big breakfast at Prins Heerlijk, a cute little bakery just down the street from the hotel. Alas, this is where Winnie left us but that was not the end of the day for Connie and I. We trammed straight down to the Heineken Experience. I WAS a skeptic who wondered just how much of a story can be told about a beer. I was bowled over. It was a grand Experience and I recommend it for any first-timer to Amsterdam, if for nothing else then go check out the very cool, personalized merchandize available for sale.

Last stop, Albert Cuypstraat open market where I took the opportunity to invest in a pair of warmer gloves because although it had stopped drizzling and the sky was turning a bright blue, the temperature was reduced to about 8˚C in broad daylight!

And that was that. Amsterdam is a great, compact city with much to see and do. Best explored on foot or on bicycle. I am definitely going back!