Monday, July 24, 2017

Some Sydney Tourist Icons

When travelling in the USA and found to be Australian, we often hear "Oh Australia! We have always wanted to go there".
From my time on an Australian travel forum it was pretty obvious that many Americans had no idea how big the country was and how much time of their precious holiday (it seemed two weeks was the standard duration) would be used up getting to the various iconic tourist attractions.
Many had impossible itineraries that would have them mainly seeing airports and the inside of aircraft. And equating driving times achieved on their expansive interstate highway system to the majority of our lessor quality roads was also a mistake.
The most popular route for tourists on a short time schedule to get an idea of Australian city life, the outback and some natural beauty is the so called  'City-Rock-Reef' trail ie. Sydney-Uluru (Ayers Rock)-Great Barrier Reef.

A reasonable time frame for this is 4+1 days Sydney (including one on arrival to recover from jet lag), 3 days Uluru, 5 days Cairns or Port Douglas.
At least half a day each is lost getting from place to place as well as back to Sydney for the flight home.
As far as Sydney is concerned here are some of the places, in no particular order, most tourists want to visit.
-Sydney Opera House
Probably (along with the bridge), the best known feature of Sydney's landscape. Described variously from a ship setting sail to turtles having group sex, Jørn Utzon's building is an architectural classic. You can walk around it to take in its intricate design with the city skyline as a back drop, take interior tours or simply go to a concert or play or just enjoy a drink in the forecourt and watch the harbour traffic come and go.

-The Sydney Harbour Bridge
Opened in 1932 to join the north of the city with the south, I have some connection to the bridge. My father worked for the company which produced the six million rivets that were used in its construction. The stone used in the pylons was quarried at Moruya not far from where we currently live.
Apart from driving or training over it, you can walk it, climb over the top of the arch or if your wallet doesn't extend that far or acrophobia is a problem, then you can visit the south east pylon which has a small bridge museum and great views from the top

-Bondi Beach
Famous all around the world even pre the 'Bondi Rescue' TV series.
Why? I don't really know.
Probably because its a city beach easily accessible to the populous. But there are many along the city's coast just as nice and a lot less crowded. The area surrounding it is full of restaurants and bars and it can be a bit 'iffy' late in the evening.
There is a lovely coastal walk all the way to Coogee Beach starting at the southern end and walk to South Head from the northern end.
They are the only reasons I would go there.
-Sydney Ferries
These are part of the public transport system around Sydney but also a 'must do' for tourists despite a number of commercial harbour cruise companies who offer narrated coffee or lunch/dinner trips.
The most popular is the Manly ferry across to the jumping off point for northern suburbs and their beaches. You get to see most of the eastern harbour on that trip and Manly Beach rivals Bondi.
But for those interested in a road less tourist travelled, they go west under the bridge, some all the way up the Parramatta River to that historic city.

- The Blue Mountains
About 2 hours west of Sydney by car or train, lies this spectacular sandstone range. For many years after settlement this was a major barrier to the western expansion of the colony and was only 'conquered' in 1813. 
The Blue Mountains are so named because, from Sydney, they look blue. They are covered in vast forests of eucalypts which in the hot sun discharge a fine mist of eucalyptus oil from their leaves. The mist refracts light, which makes the haze look blue at a distance.
Part of the attraction is that you are mostly on top of the ridges looking down rather than in valleys looking up.
The area around Katoomba, the main centre, is usually crowded with tourists but they tend to gather at Echo Point (the Three Sisters) and Scenic World.
If you venture further afield eg. Kanangra Walls or take walks to the canyon floors in other parts of the national park, you get to appreciate the beauty of this area. But be warned! It is easy to get lost and never found in the labyrinth. It happens on a regular basis for those who go unprepared.
It is usually much cooler than Sydney up there and it can even snow in winter at times.
However during the hotter summer months bush fires are a constant threat and there have been some disastrous ones over the years.

-Taronga Park Zoo
If you are into Zoos (I am not), this isn't too bad a one. There is a mix of exotic and native animals housed in reasonable conditions. The setting is spectacular looking back across the harbour to the city and the ferry ride getting there is great.

-The Heads
The 2km wide entrance to Sydney Harbour (Port Jackson) has two vantage points, South and North Heads. The former is the most popular and the easier to get to via road or ferry. The infamous Gap, the city's 'favourite' suicide spot is also there.
A twenty-minute foreshore walk on the South Head Heritage Trail offers views of Middle Head, Manly, North Head and the Pacific Ocean. Starting at Camp Cove Beach, an 1870s cobblestone path leads first to Lady Bay (also known as Lady Jane) Beach, one of three in Sydney where nude bathing is lawful. It then loops around the headland, passing Hornby Lighthouse, its light keepers' cottages, and several gun emplacements from the end of the 19th century.
North Head is accessed from Manly. It has great views back to the city and some wonderful walks through native coastal vegetation. There is evidence of the past strategic importance of the area with remnants of gun emplacements and tunnels driven through the sandstone. It is also the site of the (supposedly haunted) Quarantine Station that operated from 1828 to 1982. It is now a hotel, conference and wedding venue.
Educational, history, ghost and paranormal tours are on offer.
-Royal Botanic Garden
An easy stroll from the centre of town or the Opera House these gardens were originally the site of the first farm by European settlers on the Australian continent in 1788. Although that farm failed, the land has been in constant cultivation since that time, as ways were found to make the relatively infertile soils more productive. The Botanic Garden was founded in 1816 and is the oldest scientific institution in Australia.
Many different horticultural environments have been developed and a mixture of native and exotic flora is on display.
And it is free!

-Sydney Tower
The highest structure (not officially a building) in the city which has great 360 degree views.
But it costs to get up there and there is a revolving restaurant with equally high prices and mediocre food and proves the old saying 'never eat anywhere that revolves, floats or has views.'
Probably could be considered a bit of a tourist trap.

-The QVB
The Queen Victoria Building was constructed between 1893 and 1898.
Designed originally as a marketplace, it was used for a variety of other purposes, underwent remodelling and suffered decay (and threat of demolition) until its restoration and return to its original use in the late twentieth century.
Even if you are not into shopping, the architectural splendor of this building is well worth the time.

-The Rocks
This is an urban locality, tourist precinct and historic area of Sydney's city centre situated on the western side of Sydney Cove and under the Bridge approaches.
It became established shortly after the colony's formation in 1788. From the earliest history of the settlement, the area had a reputation as a slum and the arriving convicts' side of town, often frequented by visiting sailors and prostitutes.
During the late nineteenth century, the area was dominated by a gangs and maintained this rough reputation until approximately the 1870s.
By the early 20th century, many of the area's historic buildings were in serious decay and the state government resumed areas around The Rocks with the intention of demolishing them and rebuilding them. More than 3,800 houses, buildings and wharves were inspected and hundreds demolished, but the continuation of these plans were brought to a halt due to the outbreak of the First World War. During the 1920s, several hundred buildings were demolished during the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In 1968, the state government gave control of The Rocks to the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, with the intention of demolishing all the original buildings and re-developing the sites into high-density residential dwellings.
But this move was thwarted by resident and Union action (green bans).
So instead of demolishing The Rocks, renovations transformed the area into the commercial and tourist precinct we see today.
Yes, it is touristy with some really tacky shops and rip off restaurants but there are still pockets of charm with beautifully restored buildings (both residential and commercial), old pubs and places to get away from the hoards if you know where to go. And the weekend markets there sell mostly high quality goods and souvenirs.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

USA 2017 / Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk

As is usual there was some beautiful work in this year's collection

More details here.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

USA 2017 / South Dakota and Back Home

Our final week saw us doing the last rounds with family and friends with meals and get togethers.
I even read two Australian kids' books, Possum Magic and Wombat Stew, we had given over the years to a group of siblings' grand kids.
They wanted to hear them in a genuine accent (or was it really the adults who wanted that?).
By the looks on some faces they may have found it all a bit strange: "Is that word really pronounced like that?"
There was a well catered Harry Potter themed birthday party by sister Kay for the niece.
Am I the only one in the world that knows zilch about Harry Potter?
What is it with the brick walls and owls?

We stayed a few days with the Gs. The ladies talked (and talked) and sewed. In between meals, Em and I watched numerous old westerns on the 'hokey' (K's description, not ours) Westerns Channel. We don't have that one here on cable much to my regret.
On another night, we were invited to a birthday club get together at the local barn museum.
This was very interesting with so much to see.
But eating a lovely picnic style supper took priority over history so maybe a return visit is in order.

Back at Lake Hendricks we gathered for the traditional greed game and a family lunch. The game had been postponed from Christmas due to the bad weather then so we got to participate.
I won't go into the rules but it was fun and I scored some good loot.
Missing those black socks, Jim?
Talking of weather, we experienced some pretty heavy storm activity while in SD. The last night was particularly nasty. Storm cells with 75 mph winds, hail and torrential rain were spawning tornadoes. When the local TV channel suspends programming to concentrate solely on the weather, you know it is serious. Thankfully we were spared any problems.
Prairie Sunset After a Storm / Pic: Crystal Peterson

I had one last try at fishing and brought in one mini sized bullhead. Lake fishing is obviously not my forte.
I am thinking about petitioning the MN and SD governments to rename Lake Hendricks as Lake Disappointment.
All too soon it was time to leave.
The flights home had only one hiccup. An already tight connection in Denver was made even tighter by a late departure from Sioux Falls but luckily our departure gate to LAX was almost opposite that of our arrival so we made it. Murphy's Law states it should have been 50 gates away.
The transpacific flight was in a 50% empty aircraft and I got three seats to stretch out on and slept for 7 of the 14 hours.
Arrival was on time and immigration formalities quick.
Thankfully, despite the very short connect time in Denver, our baggage made it too. We would not have wanted to misplace 4 x 23kg of predominantly quilting fabric. And a few rust items of course (don't ask!)
Then it was in the car for the 3 to 4 hour drive home which we took very easy with 2 coffee stops on the way.

Everything at home was in order. Our house watcher, Annabelle, and cow watchers, Bob and Jude, had done a great job.
However our bank had advised us by SMS while we were in flight that one of our linked CCs had been compromised late in our trip and both were cancelled. Luckily this did not affect us financially or during our trip and they have both been replaced.
Lesson? Always advise your bank of OS travel and take more than one credit card, both of which we always do.
Jet lag has been minimal and we are gradually slipping back into our normal daily lives.
It was, as usual, great seeing everyone and we appreciated their generous hospitality and fun company.
We hope to do it all again in 2019.

Friday, July 07, 2017

USA 2017 / Iowa Part 2

Next morning, it was another quilt shop visit in Ames and yet another east of the small town of Ellsworth.
These quilt shop businesses in the middle of nowhere amaze me.
They seem to be everywhere and thriving.
Then onto Clear Lake for another quilt shop and, more importantly, to where 'the music died' on 3rd February, 1959.
First stop was the Surf Ballroom where Buddy Holly, the Big Boppa and Ritchie Valens played their last gig.
This is really a place for the boomer generation.

Anyone who is anyone has played here over the decades and they continue to come.
There is lots of memorabilia to see and the room itself is wonderful with its huge dance floor, stage and tiered booths.

There is a memorial to the three performers plus the pilot outside the building. A number of oldies were on the same pilgrimage. I took a multitude of photos of a gaggle of old ducks with their phones. 
They were obviously enjoying the experience.
One day I would really like to return for a show.

Then it was off to the crash site itself. Situated a little out of town in the middle of bean and corn fields, it was a no go zone for a very long time.
But apparently a new owner of the farmland agreed to allow a small right of way into the site, about 800m from a dusty road, and the construction of a small memorial. As long as visitors 'behave' themselves, it seems access will continue to be available.

We came across the entrance way with its iconic glasses, parked and walked in. It is just a small memorial where people have left flowers, flags and other bits and pieces. One for the pilot has been added separately. We flipped a coin, as has become the tradition and paid our respects. A couple of other people were doing the same.

Then it was back to Sioux Falls where we were having what has become our traditional SD date night at Foley's Fish, Chop and Steakhouse.
Since we were last there, the restaurant had changed hands and become Morrie's Steakhouse.
We shouldn't have worried.

It was just as good or maybe even better than before and the wine list has expanded greatly.
It is now an eclectic world wide selection.
Australia's top wine, Penfold's Grange, was there at $US650/bottle for the 2004 vintage (GULP!).
The non restaurant retail price here for this great vintage is $US560 (I have seen a $US1500 restaurant price!), so maybe not so bad at Morrie's after all.
The Grange was obviously put aside but decision crises still reigned.
After a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley with my starter (deep fried walleye pieces), I eventually settled on a 2014 Argyle Reserve Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon which turned out to be a great choice and went well with out meat selection.
The dessert was a huge piece of a rum infused carrot cake. You had to be over 21 to order it. Have never seen a potential carding required in a restaurant for a dessert item before.
We both had our fill and there was still heaps left so we took the rest home to mom.
This is one of the better restaurants we have eaten at....anywhere.
Our final week in SD was already looming and we still had lots to do!

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

USA 2017 / Iowa Part 1

I made the trip down to Canton the day before our Iowa trip so I could visit the Calico Skies Winery which looked good on paper. It was more than a hobby vineyard/winery which seems to be predominant in SD.
I picked the niece up at the retreat and drove the few miles into Iowa to the winery. It was a very nice set up. The production equipment was very modern and the vineyards nicely set out. They grow mainly American French hybrids as well as bring in grapes from other vineyards. Their wine list covers a selection of sweet and dry whites and reds with a few sweet 'fizzies' thrown in. They also market a number of fruit wines.
It was their 6th Anniversary celebration so there was a big crowd there enjoying music and the festivities.

They were far too busy for an individual tasting so we enjoyed a glass each of their Chambourcin and Marquette which is an inter-specific hybrid red wine grape variety. It was developed at the University of Minnesota and is a cross between two other hybrids, MN 1094 and Ravat 262.
The former is the 'signature wine' of our local area and it always tastes pretty ordinary to us. This one was completely different and enjoyable. The latter is said to have some a Pinot Noir in its DNA and was also pretty good.
I was amazed at the number of people, mainly men, who were drinking beer in the tasting room.
The niece thought that was pretty normal for this part of the world.
I would like to return there some day.
The quilt retreat was in a building that was previously a bank. Three huge safes are still a feature of the sewing a room.

I hung out there with the ladies for the evening and then we headed for Cedar Rapids early the next morning, again along state and county highways. Our first stop was Le Mars for coffee and a snack and to pay homage at the 'Temple of the Bunny'.
The city is home to the Blue Bunny ice cream factory and claims to be the Ice Cream Capital of the World. They produce more than 150 million gallons of ice cream a year and have a tasting parlour in town. A one scoop turned out to be a mega cup but I managed to devour mine and what was left of the co drivers.

Further on, we stopped at a small town (can't tell you the name, they tend to all look the same) for a very yummy Mexican lunch.
After seven hours driving, we arrived at our destination, met up with our friends from Chicago, had drinks and dinner and then hit the sack.
Next morning we drove the 45 minutes to the Amana Colony.
The Amana Colony is seven villages on 11,000 ha which were built and settled by German Pietists, who were persecuted in their homeland by the German state government and the Lutheran Church. Calling themselves the Community of True Inspiration (Die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration), they first settled in New York near Buffalo in what is now the town of West Seneca. However, seeking more isolated surroundings, they moved to Iowa in 1856.
They lived a communal life there until 1932.

Now the colonies are a tourist center relying on their "Germanness' as the attraction. This can be a bit of a stretch at times. From a previous visit there, we realized the only German thing about the restaurant food were the names on the menus. Whirlpool's Amana appliance factory is there and would have to be a big employer also.
At the main centre, Amana, the ladies were interested in a quilt shop so Roger and I just wandered, ending up in a furniture and wood working shop which was a fascinating place as well as the home of sticker shock.

Meeting up again, the four of us explored the main street with its many touristy shops. I particularly liked the Christmas shop but couldn't imagine working there and listening to carols 8 hours a day.

Then we drove to South Amana where, according to the co driver, was the quilt shop find of the entire 5 week USA visit, Fern Hill Gifts and Quilts. The CC got some damage done to it there.

After lunch we said out goodbyes to the Chicagoans who were heading for Texas for a few weeks and we made our way, again on the back roads via Norway (of baseball fame) and Nevada (scene of a fruitless quilt shop search) to Ames and our hotel.
There we had a really nice dinner at the Texas Roadhouse. Good cold beer, tender steak done  to perfection and exceptional service. The latter spawned a discussion on tipping.
We don't tip in Australia. Minimum wage for permanent employees here is the equivalent of around $US14/hr with benefits (superannuation (401K) payments, sick leave, up to 4 weeks vacation leave, long service leave, maternity or paternity leave, bereavement leave and penalty rates for weekend and holiday work). For casual employees the benefits are replaced by a minimum 25% basic wage supplement.

Our server told us she was earning $US4.35/hr plus tips. Australians who complain about tipping in the USA should really be made aware of the minimal wages some people, particularly in the hospitality and service industries, are earning there.
It was an early night in preparation for the next day's adventures.

Monday, July 03, 2017

USA 2017 / South Dakota Part 4

The ladies had taken off on a 3 day quilt retreat on the SD/IA border at Canton, so I took the opportunity, one day, of doing a small road trip to my favourite clothing store, Cabelas, in Mitchell.
Instead of taking the Interstates (I90 and I35), I zig zagged west along as many sealed minor roads as I could find.
It was beautiful country. Rolling prairie land with soy bean and corn fields just shooting, interspersed with cattle farms with rich green pastures, healthy looking stock (black Angus seemed popular) and isolated communities, some with very small populations.

I hardly saw another car until I headed south on a state highway to my destination.
Mitchell is home to the Corn Palace.
The Corn Palace is decorated with murals inside and out, made from 13 different colors of corn ( red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow and now green!), each framed with native grasses, straw, milo, and sourdock. A local farmer grows all the corn for the Palace, a local artist designs the murals, and a team of approximately 20 workers change out the murals every year beginning in late-May and working into October. They had already started on the outside the day I was there.
A different theme is chosen each year and murals are designed to reflect that theme. 
The Palace is never un-decorated, as the murals are not taken down until it is time to replace them in the late summer, when the work is a gradual process.

The building is more than a point of interest for tourists however. It is a practical structure adaptable to many purposes which include industrial exhibits, dances, stage shows, meetings, banquets, proms, graduations as well as district, regional and state basketball tournaments. This day the floor (basket ball court) was a market place.
Unfortunately Cabelas didn't have many bargains (too early for summer stock on sale and too late for winter remnants) but I managed to get a few pairs of jeans at a reasonable price that will tide me over until next visit.
Then after lunch at Culvers (senior's discount!), I made my way back east also along roads less travelled.
A really enjoyable day and not too stressful driving alone on "the other side of the road".
Next day, Mark, Jim, the kids and I went to a dairy farm open day at a facility 30 minutes down the road.
What an absolute eye opener!
3600 cows reside in 4 huge, very long free stall barns. Their bedding is sand which is cleaned every day and recycled.
They are free choice fed with a formulated mixture hay, various corn residues and special ingredients sourced from a huge storage and mixing area on site. We had a interesting discussion with the nutritionists and were able to see the variety of feed components.

The cows are milked 3 times a day, a 100 cows at a time.
The facility has 38 employees and is in round the clock production 365 days a year.
12 calves a day are born there.
Three tanker loads of milk a day are sent to the Land o' Lakes facility in Sioux Falls
We got a great tour and free toasted cheese sandwiches, chips, milk and ice cream at the conclusion.
A very interesting morning.
The two bachelors survived their desertion on home bbq'd steak and beer one night and a Cubby's burger and beer the next.
But soon it was time for me to head for Canton, pick up the co driver, and start our mini Iowa adventure.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

USA 2017 / South Dakota Part 3

After a great pulled pork sandwich at the Backyard Grill in Brookings we met up with Aleycia and the kids and headed for the Dakota Nature Park.
This is a recently developed area converting a landfill and gravel mining operation into a 55ha nature park with walking and bike trails and a string of ponds.
It is open to public use for activities such as fishing, bird-watching, hiking, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, canoeing, kayaking and picnics.

Miles fished one of the ponds and pulled out 15 small perch in an hour.
It was suggested we take him to Lake Hendricks next time as he obviously knows where the fish are.
From there we went to the SDSU campus for ice cream. The university has a 'cow to cone' ice cream production unit as part of one of the Dairy and Food Science courses. More than 60 flavors of  rich, homemade ice cream and sherbet are served at the Dairy Bar.

You can actually watch the production process as you eat if there is a class in action.
The institution also has an Art Museum. I have been there before and enjoyed the permanent Harvey Dunn exhibition.
This time round there was a stunning Horses themed exhibition as well as additional Dunn works depicting his World War I imagery.

We spent a bit of time in Sioux Falls at Falls Park, walking the Sculpture Walk (see separate post), the Old Courthouse Museum for interesting World War 1 and George Catlin: Life Among American Indian Tribes exhibits and participated in a Paint and Wine Night with family.
We also managed to revisit the Phillips Ave Diner and found a nice new Mexican (and Guatemalan) restaurant, Jacky's and the coffee at  Coffea Roasterie was still as good as ever.
Another culinary revisit also paid dividends. The steak at the Knotty Pine in Elkton was one of the best.

On Memorial Day a group of us set off on a tour of five cemeteries to visit and clean up family graves. I didn't know exactly what to expect. The attitude to death in this part of the woods is a little different to what I am used to.
But it turned out to be a fun day. I learnt a lot of family history. One particular graveyard in a rural area (near a beautiful Norwegian style church) was 'occupied' predominantly by the family name.

At our last stop at Granma Helen's, whom I had known (and Granpa Wes's) grave, we got out our lawn chairs and eskies (coolers) and had a hour's picnic with them.

We got some strange looks from other visitors but I saw a few groups doing the same.
This is a nice family tradition.