Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SLICE OF AUSTRALIA - GLITZY GOLD COAST

We started our drive from Brisbane at 2 pm. It took us about two hours to reach Currumbin near Gold Coast. 

We visited Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. 


We first made a beeline for the Kanagaroos - the Australian icon.


They were lazing and grazing and were very friendly even as groups of visitors went close to them. 


We could pat them and also pose with them, they had no problems. They also shared space with birds hovering about. We could even feed the kangaroos from special snack packs sold at the counter - we were thrilled when they ate out of our hands.


Not so friendly is their distant cousin - the Tree Kangaroo - on the verge of extinction - smaller in size and unsociable by nature. 

The moment we stood outside their enclosure, the fellow turned and went to his 'home' and sat outside with his back to us. He remained in that position till we left. This pattern was followed not by one but two of them - so it was not a coincidence, I feel.
The next Australian animal we saw were the koala bears - they were blissfully asleep on treetops in their enclosure totally unaware of the admiring and enthusiastic onlookers. After lingering there for some time, we moved on to other animals...

The crocodile ...

The birds ...

Tasmanian Devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world - earlier found throughout Australia but now limited to the wild of Tasmania.

The guy had his face turned away from us, so we couldn't capture his sharp teeth.

Then we returned to the koalas hoping to see them awake - one or two of them stirred but immediately went off to sleep.

Our day was made as we had enjoyed good time with the kangaroos. 

It was now time to drive to Gold Coast.
The skyline of Gold Coast was awesome - glitzy skyscrapers lined the area near the beach - most of them hotels.

Ours was one of them - Mantra Legends.
Our room was on the 11th floor. 
We were excited to see the sea from our room window and also from the little sit-out ...
... where we enjoyed our evening cuppa with Veena World snacks.

We had a nice warm bath. After getting refreshed, we decided to rest till dinner time. It had been two long days of travel by various modes and we stretched ourselves on the bed for an hour and realized the luxury we had missed.

We walked across the road to 'Tandoori House' for Indian dinner. We were ready to hit the bed on returning to the hotel. We enjoyed a good sleep and woke up early. 

We could see sunrise from our window. I was happy I could watch the sunrise now in The Pacific Ocean too having experienced the same in beaches along the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean.

We decided to take a stroll along the beach and in the neighborhood before breakfast. The beach was awesome - just dotted with a couple of joggers, the sky was a mix of pink and blue ...
and the blue water was glistening like silver in the sun's rays.

The majestic hotels along the beach mesmerized us. 


As we walked down our street we couldn't help noticing a couple of modest Indian restaurants too - Govinda's and Sher-e-Punjab.

We reached our hotel for breakfast. It was the beginning of continental breakfast every day for the next thirteen days. Of course we had the luxury to pick and choose from the lavish spread. Our breakfast remained almost the same throughout the tour but we didn't get sick of it!

The day's program was Warner Brothers' Movie World, Gold Coast. The ten minute drive took us to the place.

I was excited to see the Indian flag too at the entrance.

All of us first watched the fantastic 4D show 'Road Runner' at Roxy Theater.

'Hollywood Stunt Driver' was edge-of-the-seat entertainment.

Having visited several theme parks in the US and Europe, our interest had perhaps weaned. 


Nevertheless we enthusiastically enjoyed Road Runner Roller Coaster, Bumper cars, Yosemite Sam, Scooby Doo Spooky Coaster, Justice League 3D.
Our group gathered for lunch at Rick's Cafe Americain for lunch.

After that we were contented to just watch the high-speed roller coaster rides - Green Lantern, Superman Escape, Space Shot, and Wild West Falls.

We found ourselves good seats for the Parade which began at 3.30 - it was a modest show when compared to the couple of Disneyland Parades we had visited earlier. 

We left Movie World at 4.15 and reached our hotel in 15 minutes.
Most of us still had the enthu to head straight to the nearby beach to enjoy the sunset.

We went to the nearby stores and did some souvenir shopping.

Then after dinner again at Tandoori Place, we went to bed early. The next day was to take us to Cairns.


Friday, July 15, 2016

SLICE OF AUSTRALIA - BRISBANE


We were deliberating about our next tour. On our probables-list were a lot of places from Rajasthan to ... Singapore. One fine day my husband came up with the suggestion 'How about Australia - New Zealand?' On browsing over the tours, we realized it was almost as far as making a trip to the US - time/distance-wise. Australia is a continent alright, New Zealand has been our younger son's favorite place since childhood, not many friends and relatives have been there .... Ok, so be it! Some well-meaning friends recommended New Zealand alone for the same number of days. But we wanted to do both the countries - having gone that far. And there is no likelihood of another tour in the same direction! We just wanted a taste of both countries.

We booked our tickets for the group tour with Veena World for 13 days beginning on 24 May. Winter would have set in by then; also New Zealand would be colder than Australia. We equipped ourselves with warm clothes and packed our bags. Our family was more excited than us.

We were a group of 15 plus Tour Manager - quite a compact crowd - mostly senior citizens (we were the senior-most). We had to start from home in Pune at the unearthly hour of 1.30 am and drive to Mumbai, take the flight from there to Brisbane with a stopover at Singapore. 

We met our Tour Manager Mr.Harshal Pansare and the other members of our group, collected our goody bags from Veena World representative and went through the usual rigmarole of international air travel and boarded our Jet Airways flight to Singapore at 9.30 am. We had lost practically the entire previous night's sleep and we tried to doze a bit during our 51/2 hour flight to Singapore, keeping in mind we were gaining in time as we were travelling east and another night would be lost by the time we landed in Australia. 

We freshened up at Singapore's Changi airport before boarding the Qantas flight to Brisbane after a stopover of 2 1/2 hours. Another long flight of 7 1/2 hours which was dotted with food breaks, 'nap' breaks, 'stretch-n-walk' breaks and movie breaks, we landed at Brisbane, Queensland at 6.45 am - Australia is 4 hours ahead of India. 

We had filled up our Customs declaration forms, ticking 'yes' to medicines (for self) and food (dry Indian snacks). As we waited at the Immigration counter after collecting our bags, we noticed sniffer dogs sniffing around to check for forbidden food items in the bags (even nuts are banned). I am sure some tourists' hearts must have missed a beat due to stuff / 'chutneys' tucked in their bags! Anyway everyone was cleared and we were through.

Our tour was to start bang on! Check-in at hotels were always after 3 pm. So we freshened ourselves and even changed clothes and were fresh for the day in spite of disrupted sleep for two days and jet lag. The enthusiasm is always infectious in a group tour. 

Our luggage was loaded in the luggage van tagged to our coach and we took our seats in the coach.

Our coach took us to Sultan's Kitchen - an Indian restaurant - with a good ambiance. 

We relished our first (and as it eventually turned out - the only) breakfast in Australia of yummy 'poha' and 'vada pav' (sorry, the vada is facing the rear in the pic)! 

When we came out, we couldn't help admiring the nearby houses on hill tops.
Energized, we boarded our coach for the City Orientation Tour. We passed by Suncorp Stadium, the Town Hall, and Brisbane Cathedral.

We got to see fresh snow splattered on mountains, as well as interesting buildings. 

We got down at South Bank Waterfront and its park-lands which are one of Brisbane's most important cultural precincts regularly hosting large scale festivals and events. 


                                           
We enjoyed loitering around the serene and beautiful area with the backdrop of the Wheel of Brisbane and Brisbane river. 

After that we went to the nearby Kangaroo Point - no we didn't get to view kangaroos there. It's just called that - it is  a popular recreation spot, located on a peninsula with the Brisbane River flowing around. The landscape of Kangaroo Point  is predominantly high rise apartments towards the tip of the peninsula while the other end is predominantly low-medium density apartments / houses. The jet-lagged group just lazed around feasting their eyes on the scenic beauty.

Lunch time found us once again at Sultan's Kitchen - we enjoyed a good meal. As we were leaving, my husband told me that the couple running the restaurant hailed from Pune. As I went to the lady to thank her for the great food, I made small talk and realized she had lived in Pimpri. Pimpri for the teacher in me was synonymous with Jai Hind. And sure enough she was a student there - but that was before I had joined. The connection was enough to bond us - we exchanged a few more notes and clicked a photo together but as most of our group had boarded the coach, I had to bid a hasty goodbye. I couldn't help musing it is a small world.

We started on our drive to Gold Coast.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

SCINTILLATING SYDNEY



Sydney - what comes to your mind when you hear this name? Of course The Opera House - listed as one of the Heritage Buildings of the World by the UN. During our group tour of Australia, we had two days' stay in Sydney which was to be the last leg of the Australian segment; to be sure they were packed with interesting activities. We were pretty excited when we landed in Sydney in the morning.

We boarded our coach which took us to the famous Bondi Beach. The fine, soft, powdery, peach colored sand was inviting - it made a colorful picture with the blue-green waves topped with white foam and the azure sky. 
The beach was not too crowded - just dotted with revelers of all ages. 
Also little feathered friends amiably gave us company. The warm sun and the cool waters were an ideal combination and we loitered along the beach repeatedly delving our toes into the dry as well as wet sands and letting the waves wash them off time and again. 

After more than an hour, we started for 'Vrindavan' - Indian restaurant and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch.

Once again we boarded our coach for the City orientation tour. As we drove around, we enjoyed the skyline of Sydney. 


We saw  Centennial Park, Art Gallery, Rocks Area, Eastern Suburbs ... We also passed by Darling Harbour. We were informed Crown Street was a an alcohol-free zone. 


We went around the Royal Botanic Gardens from where we got fabulous views of Sydney's skyline and iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

We also went to 'The Domain' nearby - on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour named Mrs Macquarie's Point. The chief attraction there was Mrs. Macquarie's Chair an exposed sandstone rock cut in the shape of a bench carved by convicts in 1810 for Governor Macquarie's wife. She was known to visit the area and sit enjoying the panoramic views of the harbor and watching for ships sailing in from Great Britain. 

In addition to the Harbour, we could get more fabulous views now- 
fantastic views of Sydney's skyline and 
the imposing Opera House and Harbour Bridge. 
We gazed on and on but we were not satiated - yeh dil maange more! 

Then we drove to Harbour Bridge which bowled us over by its majestic grandeur. 

And once again the ubiquitous Opera House dominated the scene!

Soon we checked into our hotel Capitol Square right in the heart of the city. After freshening up we had free time to explore the stores nearby. It being a Sunday, many of the stores downed their shutters by 7 pm, so we couldn't shop much. 

Of course we had the 7 Eleven stores open 24 hours. There were a number of little Money Exchange shops where we could exchange currency. Most of us exchanged Australian dollars for New Zealand dollars as that was the next leg of our tour - the shop we went to was owned by an Indian and we didn't fail to make some small talk with our 'deshwasi' (country-mate). 

Our group then went over to Jaipur Restaurant for dinner. The place was spacious and done up well. But it was crowded - there was a boisterous crowd of local youths enjoying a birthday treat. The numerous empty bottles accounted for their loud behavior. It was interesting to watch one of the girls collect the contributions from each of them in various denominations including small change!

The next day was the BIG day - packed with the most interesting itinerary - and it featured almost entirely The Opera House! Weren't we brimming with excitement? 

As usual both of us took a brief stroll in the vicinity of our hotel after getting ready. It was a typical early morning traffic scene ....

with office-going crowds crossing the streets, 

buses and cars plying and shops opening for business. Then we returned for the usual heavy Continental breakfast at our hotel and boarded our coach which took us to Opera House.
The Opera House a multi-venue performing arts center in Sydney became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2007. All of us were enthralled to see the unique shape of this world wonder at close quarters. 



When we looked to the left, there was this superb sight of the skyscrapers of Sydney and farther away was the Harbour Bridge. 

Then there were those imposing majestic steps leading to the Opera House. We were informed that these Monumental Steps were utilized for seating arrangements for events at the Outdoor Forecourt. We walked up the steps and entered the Opera House. 

There we were welcomed by our guide for the day.


She gave a walkie-talkie to each of us and took us around the Opera House, giving us the highlights briefly.

Through the huge windows, we could get a good view of the outside domes with varied patterns. Actually these were glazed ceramic tiles.


We got to see the Audio-Visual of the history of Opera House projected on the walls of one of the foyers - we got to know about Danish Architect Jorn Utzon who won the design competition for the Opera House in 1957, about the progress in the project under Utzon, his resignation in 1966 due to political interference and clash due to escalating costs, the completion under Government supervision, inauguration by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 Oct 1973 for which Utzon was not invited nor even mentioned. The silver lining is there was a reconciliation with Utzon in 1999 and he was appointed as design consultant for future changes to Opera House. He died in Nov 2008 sadly without setting his eyes on his completed dream project.

We could walk into a couple of halls which had not been booked for events that day, we could seat ourselves pretending to be attending a show and take pictures! There was one hall where a pianist was tuning his piano for a show later in the day. We were hushed by our guide and allowed to quietly sit and listen with a strict warning not to use our phones /cameras which would be distracting. So we could also enjoy the awesome experience of listening to some great music (any musician playing there is a great musician) sans microphone in a hall with great acoustics. Though we were at the other end of the hall, we could hear the melody as if the musician was playing next to us. 


The wooden panels as well as carpeted walls and floors too contributed to the superb acoustic effects.

Particularly impressive was the splendid Joan Sutherland Theater. The guided tour of the Opera House was indeed a memorable experience.

Lunch time took us to 'Darbar' - an Indian restaurant with a rustic and rugged look and serving good Indian food.

The next point was the Sydney Sky Tower, Sydney's tallest structure (at 309 m above the  ground level) and the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere. (Auckland's Sky Tower is taller but Sydney Tower's main observation deck is almost 50 m higher than the observation deck on Auckland's Sky Tower). The first lift shot us up 250 m above ground level quickly to reach the fourth level where the observation deck, currently called the Sydney Tower Eye, is located.

We came out and had a fantastic 360 degree birds'eye view of Sydney at night.


After making a full circle and clicking snaps from all sides, we went up to the next level - Skywalk which is an open-air glass-floored platform encircling the Sydney Tower Eye at a height of 268 m above ground level providing even more fabulous views of bustling Sydney. The viewing platform extends over the edge of the main structure of the deck. Travel to the observation deck is by three high speed double-deck lifts, each with a capacity of 8 to 10 people. The lifts travel at full, half or quarter speed, depending on wind conditions. At full speed the lifts reach the deck in 45 seconds.

After this we drove to Darling Harbour and visited Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. Opened in 1988, it is one of the largest aquariums in the world and regarded as one of Sydney's premier tourist attractions. 

It has 14 themed zones including Jurassic Seas, Discovery Rockpool, Shark Walk, and the world’s largest Great Barrier Reef display. 


Model of Dugong
Along the way, visitors encounter animals unique to each habitat, including two of only five dugongs on display in the world ... 


sharks, stingrays, penguins and tropical fish, among others. What fascinated me about this Aquarium was the great lighting which helped us get good photos unlike in other Aquariums I have visited. 
In fact the pictures looked more colorful and attractive than the marine life we had seen riding in glass boats even at The Great Barrier Reef - some of you may frown at my penchant for colors even bordering on artificiality. But yes, the corals and fishes were indeed an eyeful. 
video

From little orange 'Nemo's and .......


little blue 'Dory's to gigantic sharks and stingrays, they were all there! The visit was not be complete without a visit and purchase at the great Gift Shop.

We came out of the aquarium - we still had an hour for the Sydney Showboat Dinner Cruise. We spent the time right there at Darling Harbour ....
we could watch colorful LED shows on one side and we were excited. We didn't realize then that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

It was time for our 3 hour luxury Showboat Indian Dinner Cruise on an authentic paddle wheeler. We boarded the Showboat at 7 pm and were welcomed by beautifully attired hostesses and hosts. 
Our entire group of sixteen sat together at the well-laid out tables for the Indian dinner banquet. Of course as usual the place was congested with just enough space for persons to walk through in a single file. A large percentage of visitors were Indians and Chinese, rather Asians. The starters arrived - a huge samosa, spring roll and bhel puri (chaat), papad, salad. 
This would suffice me for a meal I thought! 


In due course the main course arrived and it was no less than a full meal. We were entertained by a magician at our table. 


Meanwhile there was this official photographer clicking photos of couples / families.

Then there was this one-hour extravagant live cabaret show on stage with ballet and dances by gorgeous showgirls and music by cabaret singer. Then the dancers performed to a medley of songs from different countries - of course the Indian guests went ga ga over 'Ooh la la ooh la la' (the hit song from the Bollywood hit 'The Dirty Picture') - even the rest were clapping to the song. 

Meanwhile the cruise was moving slowly under Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House and we could feast on the dazzling skyline of Sydney through the cathedral windows of the cruise. 


Some of us wanted to click photos, so we went out to the surrounding deck. Who did I bump into there? The young honeymoon-couple from another tour group we had befriended two days ago on our cruise to the Great Barrier Reef! Indeed life has its store of astonishing surprises!


And then began the spectacular Vivid Live Show as multifarious patterns were projected on Sydney Opera House. 


Many of us walked along the deck to take strategic points to get a good view / picture  / video of the magnificent show even as our boat cruised close to it. 


video

We feasted on it to our hearts' content - the show went on for almost an hour. We returned to our seats for our dessert of cakes and fruits. We came out after a fantastic evening at 9.30 and were in our hotel in ten minutes.

What a day! As we hit the bed, we were trying to analyze the best part of the day and we couldn't - because each agenda in the day's itinerary stood out with its unique grandeur and appeal! Scintillating Sydney! Truly no single city has provided such vivid, exhilarating and unforgettable experiences! Paisa vasool - totally!

Needless to say we had a fantastic tour of Australia. Next day we were flying to Auckland, New Zealand.