Monday 14 February 2011

Sydney, Australia

If you’ve been reading our blog from the beginning, you may recall that we were stood in the Aquarius bar at the top of the ship, right at the aft as we sailed away from Southampton.  With the exception of the lights of the city, it was dark, cold and had just started raining, but I remember the feeling of adventure that lay before us.  In an attempt to convince myself that it was all real, I remember saying to Katie, “This ship will take us to Australia”.  It was said in amazement, both because we’d never been there, and also because it seemed so implausible at that time.  Well, on Saturday morning, having got up at 6.30am we stepped out onto our balcony and watched as the day broke over Sydney harbour and Arcadia slowly and quietly made her way towards our berth.  Other people were also quietly contemplating our arrival on other balconies to our right and below us and we watched as our floating hotel of a ship gracefully positioned herself (with some help from Captain Philpott no doubt) in between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  It could not have been a better position to tie up for the weekend. 

Unlike when we entered the US, Australian Immigration officials had boarded in Auckland, and had spent a day of our crossing performing a face to face inspection of each passenger.  It meant that when we arrived in Sydney, we were free to disembark promptly without any of the fuss we’d experienced in San Francisco.  I’m quite sure that P&O paid for their flights and stay on board, and it’s another example of the high levels of customer focused service we’ve experienced thus far.

We had booked an excursion to the Blue Mountains on the first day of our 2 day visit, and so we proceeded as is normal, to the theatre to be given our lollipops and then walk in pairs holding hands to the coach.  Of course, I’m joking, but such is the operation and organization needed to kick-off 10 different excursions, on different coaches in the space of half and hour, we sometimes feel a bit herded.  I appreciate that it’s done to cater for the minority who seemingly have lost the power of independent thought after 6 weeks on board.  Maybe they never had that particular skill in the first place, so all credit to them for getting this far.  

So we set off west out of Sydney, and drove for about 90 minutes with our guide whose name I forget.  As we drove she had a habit of repeating anything of importance 3 or 4 times, but obviously failed to convey her own name sufficiently.  Katie found her habit quite annoying, but I just ignored her and presumed she thought we were all independent thought-less types.  Unfortunately for us, it was raining and very foggy by the time we arrived in the mountains.  They weren’t so much Eucalyptus Blue, more British Standard Grey (thanks Dad!).  Still we made the most of it, and took the “world’s steepest funicular railway” down to the valley floor.  I thought at the time that it was a fairly bold statement to make about it being the steepest in the world, and I haven’t had a chance to Goo-Search it yet so I’ll repeat it here anyway. (By the way, that’s a phrase I just coined – It means to Research with the help of Google to make oneself appear more clever than is the case  – please use it at home and at work, and if it makes it into the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ll add the claim to fame to my CV.  Example – “Can you do some Goo-Search and find out where the steepest funicular railway is located?” or “I Goo-Searched the steepest funicular railway and it appears to be in the Blue Mountains”).  Regardless of it’s official steepness credentials, I can assure you that it was very steep indeed!  I’m as partial to a good moan about Health and Safety nonsense as the next man, but even I thought we should have been strapped in, or at least been given the option of a helmet.  The “train” itself was no more than a row of benches with a padded bar to protect your knees from the crushing pressure they would face as they took your full body weight on the decent.  Every time I thought “Yep, this is quite steep” it took a further dive until you felt like you were looking vertically down.  It felt like a theme park ride, where any minute, you might expect the cable at the back to let go, allowing the carriages to plummet, accelerating until it leveled off at the bottom.  It didn’t of course, but it was quite fun all the same!

Highlight of the visit over, we took a pleasant walk though along the valley floor underneath a canopy of Eucalyptus trees that give the Blue Mountains their blue haze.  On a good day.
Reaching the end of the walk, we took a cable car back to the top.  The cable car wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, it was just a cable car (incidentally, made by the same people that make lifts and cable cars in ski resorts).  Lunch was also included for us, so we made our way to the restaurant, and dumped our bags onto one of the long tables that had been allocated to our party, then headed for the buffet.  I hadn’t noticed that the main part of the restaurant was on a revolving floor, so when I returned with a plateful of food, I found the table wasn’t where I had remembered, but still dismissed it, and blamed my appalling sense of direction!  It wasn’t until we were sat down that I realized the room was spinning.  The food itself was nice and plentiful, with a few local dishes including a Kangeroo stir fry.  Apparently, Kangeroo is becoming more popular as a meat in it’s native country, although the bulk of the farmed meat is still exported.  We both tried some, and found it to be quite acceptable; a bit like beef in colour and texture but with a stronger flavour.  Not at all like chicken!

After the obligatory stop in the gift shop, we headed back to the coach and started our journey back to Sydney.  On the way back, we were stopping in a small wildlife sanctuary, something we’d been looking forward to as part of this excursion.  The sanctuary was located in a regular suburban street, and was home to Kangaroos, Wallabies, Wombats, Dingos, Koala Bears an assortment of native birds and a few poisonous snakes.  You couldn’t get much more Australian unless the owners were Bruce and Sheila.  I don’t think they were.  Shame.  Despite the rain which had started falling with some force, we managed to feed the Wallabies and Kangeroos who took food from our hands, and stroke Frankie the Koala.  We thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and would recommend Featherdale Wildlife Park if you’re ever in the Sydney area.

We were in the unique position on Saturday evening to go out and enjoy ourselves without having to worry about being back onboard at any particular time.  Normally, when we’re only in port for the day, the only option is have dinner onboard, but against a tide of Meridian faithfuls, we fought our way to the gangway and jumped in a taxi which took us to Darling Harbour, about $15 away.  The waterfront at Darling Harbour is really very nice.  Lots of smaller yachts and ships docked around the horseshoe shaped harbour, with hotels, bars and restaurants lining the pedestrian walkway.  It felt like a very vibrant part of the city, lots of people out for the evening, music and noise coming from every restaurant, and despite the threatening weather, it still had a very upbeat atmosphere, and the temperature was still a comfortable 20C.  We can only imagine what it would have been like had the sun been shining that evening.  We ate in a lovely restaurant which had been booked for us by Trevor and Jean. It served mostly seafood dishes, but you could be assured it was fresh that day, and it had a great view overlooking the harbour (as did most of the restaurants).  I had clam and crab meat pasta, Katie had scallops.  We decided to walk back to the ship along the front.  It looked like most of the Sydney population under 35 were also here, and I can confirm that even Sydney has its fair share of chavs but we didn’t see anyone too drunk to walk like you might encounter in a UK city on a Saturday night.  Maybe it was still too early!  Although it felt a bit of a shame to be heading back to the ship for the night, we still managed to squeeze a drink out of the Aquarius bar staff, and concluded that we actually had the best seat in the city as far as views went.  We were outside, we could have a conversation, the beer was reasonably priced, we had Harbour Bridge beautifully lit up to the left and the Opera House, lit up, to the right.  We even had comfy seats and our beds were only a short walk away.  Maybe those Meridian faithfuls weren’t so foolish after all!

Day 2

We didn’t have too many plans for today, but knew that we wanted to take a ferry to a nice beach suburb of Sydney called Manly Beach.  The ferries ran every 30 minutes or so, and left from the same harbour area where we were docked, so it was just a pleasant 5 minute walk to get tickets and jump onboard.  The trip took us across the bay, giving great views of the bridge and opera house.  The weather had cleared up a bit overnight, it wasn’t raining any more, and it was bright, but it certainly wasn’t typical Sydney weather.  In fact, for the week before we arrived, Cyclone Yasi excepted, Sydney had been having a heat wave.  Mid 30s was normal, but it had been low 40s for some days, and we got the impression that most residents were quite glad of the break.  I think I preferred what we had been given, walking around in 40 degree weather is not much fun.

Manly turned out to be a really nice place, lots of shops, outdoor cafes and a great surfing beach on the Tasman Sea side.  Of course, we had to experience the sea for ourselves, the Tasman sea was a new one to tick off but it was surprisingly cold.  If we’d have looked, we’d have seen the signs pointing us to this fact; all the surfers were wearing wet suits!  After a walk, some food, some shopping and some more walking, we headed back towards the ferry just as the weather started turning for the worse. The 30 minute crossing back to Circular Quay was more choppy and wet than many on board had expected or prepared for.  The fight for seats outside at the front of the ferry quickly became a dash for cover inside as the waves broke over the bow and the spray caught a few people out.  For us hardened sea dogs, it wasn’t a problem!

We spent the rest of the day browsing the local weekend market buying a few souvenirs and a new “man bag” for me.  I’ve been looking for something more stylish than the St Thomas cloth shopping bag that we bought as an emergency measure when Katie’s suitcase was overweight.  We found my bag in a shop in The Rocks area of the city and I’m very pleased with it although it is yet to have a proper outing.

As we were sailing at 23.30 that evening, we decided to eat local and stopped at probably the most expensive restaurant in Sydney.  It was a German style affair with long wooden tables and benches, and the staff were dressed in uniforms that could easily have passed as traditional dress to an unsuspecting tourist.  Still, we got a table outside (mainly because no-one else was willing to risk the weather) and ordered a proper litre Stein of German beer.   At $21AUS (about 14GBP) it wasn’t exactly the cheapest, but it took us all evening to drink it, so the value for money wasn’t too bad!  In hindsight, I’m not sure of the logic of a German bar/restaurant in Sydney but it may as well have been printing money inside.  It was full, and the food prices were equally steep.

After a very pleasant stroll over to the Opera House headland, we took some pictures which you might see in Katie’s post below.  It looked even more iconic up close, and lit up so that the white arched roofs seemed to glow against the night sky.  Just across, Arcadia loomed with all her own lights creating a photo opportunity for many people.  The small amount of smoke coming from the funnel indicated that she was getting ready for departure.  Beyond that, the Harbour Bridge again lit up.  It was a most impressive view, impossible to capture with a single shot.  We could have stayed there for a few hours, just watching it and taking in the atmosphere and the music from the bars, but our inevitable departure from Sydney was getting closer, and the German beer catching up with me.

As you might expect, the sail away tonight was one of the best.  The Aquarius bar, where the party is usually held was more busy at midnight than it was during the sunbathing days of the Caribbean.  Rob was playing the songs, and the area normally reserved for sun beds had been cleared for dancing instead.  The atmosphere was really special, the German beer had been replaced by several French ones, and the views as we pulled out of our berth, and made our way back towards the Tasman Sea were predictably stunning.  Sad to leave, but a great way to say goodbye.    

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