03 March 2013

Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania

This trip was planned almost a year in advance because some friends had chosen to go on a 7-day Tasmania cruise on Royal Caribbean.  It was a nice length for me and I had never been to Tasmania, so I signed up.  It was scheduled for the peak summer season in Australia, so the airfares would not be cheap.  I decided early on to book First Class award seats since they were available.  So despite the very long journey, this again was not a trip where I would earn any lifetime miles.  But it was a trip still worth writing up.

The nice thing about the flights to Australia is that they leave late in the evening and arrive in the morning "two days later".  The flight is long enough to have dinner, sleep awhile and then start the day off and seemingly be on cycle.  I could work a full day, go home and then head to the airport, minimizing the days off I would need for the trip.

United flies non-stop to Sydney from SFO.  They use a 747, and the plane I was on was recently enhanced in a couple of ways.  They have the turn-down service, which is essentially a thin pad that is placed on top of the seat cushions; and satellite wifi.  The wifi was priced at $14.99 and $22.99, with the  higher price giving you faster speed.  I found that the wifi worked pretty well during the first half of the flight, but later on, it would not connect.  But while it worked, it was pretty responsive (I was using my iPhone).

Arriving in Sydney, I had expected to use the electronic SmartGate, as Global Entry members were recently granted this privilege.  However, the kiosks didn't want to function with my passport.  Fortunately, I also received an Express Pass for my class of service, so I was able to use a shorter line to clear immigration.

After picking up my luggage, I had planned to use the train to get to Central Sydney.  However, we were informed that the trains were not running due to weekend track work.  Instead, they were providing free bus service to Central Station.  That would put me within one subway stop of my hotel.  However, when I reached Central Station, I thought would just walk it to the hotel (it didn't seem pretty straightforward and not that far).  It took a little longer than I thought, but it was good exercise.

The Hilton Sydney did not have my room ready yet.  They did let me use the spa to freshen up and the Executive Lounge to wait for a bit.  I grabbed a snack, but the room was still not ready, so I left my luggage and met up with my friends who journeyed to my hotel lobby to meet me.

The Hilton assigned me to a very nice upgraded room, called a Relaxation Suite.

The room was spacious and modern.  The bathroom had a tub next to a window looking out from the 39th floor.  And there were jets in the tub.

My hotel status let me have breakfast in the Executive Lounge or the full buffet in the restaurant.  I decided to go with the buffet both mornings, which was very nice and full of choices.

The evening food in the Lounge was fine, with a whole shrimp bar, sushi, samosas, veggies and pea soup.  There was almost always a line for the free alcohol, so I did not bother with that.  Since I was with friends on this trip, I was going to eat dinner out anyway.

On my arrival day, we took a ferry and toured Sydney Harbour, from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo to Watson's Bay, under the bridge and over to Darling Harbour.

After a nice lunch at Darling Harbour (the set lunches are a good deal at some of the restaurants), we walked back to our respective hotels to reset for the second part -- the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb.  I had reserved in advance our time slots to do the twilight climb.  We would start at 5:45pm in broad daylight and end after the sun set, with the city lights all in view.  The first 45 minutes were all preparatory work, including getting outfitted and then doing a little indoor climbing and descending practice on some ladder stairs.  The actual climb took us underneath the bridge roadway to the pylons.  We then ascended through the roadway to the start of the arch and then climbed up the outer arch to the top.  We then crossed over the middle to the arch on the other side and then headed back down a path parallel to our ascent route.  There are lots of stops where they take photos (we are not allowed to bring anything with us), which is one reason the climb takes as long as it does.  The climb is safe, as you are tethered to a cable the entire time.  However, on our decent, one end of the tethering cable came loose, allowing a few people to inadvertently become disconnected from the safety cable.  The situation was quickly remedied and we continued fine though to the end.
For our next and last full free day in Sydney, we boarded a train for Blue Mountains National Park.  It's just a regular commuter train that takes you there in about two hours.  We took the train to Katoomba.  Form the station, it is a little bit of a walk down to the canyon edge (there is a hop on/hop off bus, shuttle and taxi service, if desired) but it was worth it.

We hiked around for a few hours along the road and rim trail.  We didn't have time to take the tram down to the valley floor and the special steep-angle train was not working that day.  We decided we will have to go back some time.

The next day was boarding day for the ship, but we had the morning still free, so we visited the Australian Museum where they had a special Alexander the Great Exhibition.  Afterwards, we walked by St. Mary's Cathedral.

Getting to the ship from my hotel was pretty easy.  There is a free Central Business District Bus (#555) that travels St. Georges St. and has a stop at Circular Quay.  From there, it was a short walk to the Overseas Passenger Terminal where the Rhapsody of the Seas was docked.  Since I was booked in a Grand Suite, the boarding process was greatly expedited.

This was the first time I had booked such a big room on a ship.  It was bigger than many hotel rooms I have stayed in and the bathroom was bigger than my one at home.

 These were a couple of shots as we left port and proceeded to sail out of Sydney Harbour.

After a full day  "at sea", we arrived in Melbourne in the early morning.  We all went on the walking tour excursion from the ship, which involved taking on light rail from the port to central Melbourne (and an all-day ticket to get back).  We spent the morning touring various Melbourne landmarks (old and new) until early afternoon.

Main train station

Before going back to the ship at the conclusion of our excursion, we stopped for a bite to eat at a Spanish tapas bar called Movida, located on the well-known graffiti art street called Hosier Lane.   I had some really good churros with double-thick hot chocolate for dipping.

After an easy ride back to the ship on light rail #109, we were off for Tasmania.

The first stop in Tasmania was the port town of Burnie.  I chose to book an excursion to a wildlife rescue facility.  This took me to the interior countryside of Tasmania, which was picturesque.

At the Wings Wildlife Park, we were able to get close to many native animals.  I was even able to pet a Tasmanian Devil (the baby one being held), a koala, and kangaroos.
Chomping on a wallaby leg


A joey in pouch
Mellow koalas

You can watch vicious Tassie Devils in action here:

And here's a look at koalas in motion:

After Burnie, our ship headed to Hobart, Tasmania's largest city.  With an afternoon arrival and an overnight in port, I signed up for a day and a half of excursions from the ship.  The ship docks very close to the center of town, so it's easy to wander around and explore.  The afternoon trip took me to the top of Mt. Wellington, which afforded a great view of Hobart and the surrounding harbor area.

Very top of Mt. Wellington
After descending, we were taken to the Royal Botanical Gardens and to a view across the river back to Hobart.

The next day, my full day excursion took me to Richmond, a preserved historic small town, a salmon and trout farm for lunch, Mt. Fields National Park for a hike to a waterfall, and Bonarong Wildlife Park.

Richmond from the other side
Russell Falls, Mt. Fields National 

Our last stop before returning to the ship was at Bonarong Wildlife Park.  I loved watching the kangaroos move across the field (when they decided to!).  Check out the videos:

Most of the time, the kangaroos were just lounging around, looking for free food from the visitors (including a free lick of a popsicle!).

After Hobart, it was a full-day "at sea" again back to Sydney. I signed up for a final excursion that would transfer me to the airport with a roundabout tour  of the northern suburbs of Sydney, including Manly Beach.

Harbor side of Manly

Ocean side of Manly

The weather in Australia was great the entire time.  It was very difficult to leave summertime behind.  And the flight back was relatively very quick (those darn winds), so I didn't get to sleep as much as I would have liked for a morning arrival into SFO.  But 10 days of summer in the middle of February is better than none.