Monday, May 30, 2011

The Road Trip Begins

The day after our Barossa wine tour, Liz and I awoke early and departed from the “shack” to begin the first leg of our Great Ocean Road Trip.  The goal for the first day of driving:  make it as far as Warrnambool, Victoria – right where the proper Great Ocean Road begins.  But first we needed to thaw out:

It was freezing by night, but luckily it soon warmed up.  I was a happy camper to be behind the wheel of a car again:

In true Aussie road trip fashion, we just had to pull over when we saw a kangaroo crossing sign.  There were crossing signs for a wide variety of Australian animals, and I’ll picture one or two more in the next few blogs.

Our first pit stop was one that I was super excited about:  Naracoorte Caves National Park!  The park is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Australia and is home to a large fossil collection.  The fossils stem from when ancient Australian fauna would fall into the caves and be unable to get out.  Included in the fossil collection are some Australian “megafauna” – think really, really large kangaroos!

There was a lot of stalagmite and stalactite action going on here:

One of the current fossil excavation sites in the caves:

Ancient kangaroo skeleton:

Ceiling of one of the caves which had round impressions in it - either caused by something geological... or aliens:

We had a little fun on the welcome sign before we drove off:

Our drive from the Naracoorte Caves took us to the town of Kingston for a crappy small town lunch, followed by a stop at a beach near Robe, South Australia:

This beach is significant because this is where our hosts, Tara & Simon, got married in November 2009.  I wasn’t invited to the wedding, so I figured I’d go see where the magic happened since I was in the area.  In all fairness, I hadn’t met them yet…

Our final stop was to check into our hotel in Warrnambool, Victoria.  The touristy town is at the very end of the Great Ocean Road - or for us, the very beginning.  Most people start in Melbourne to do the drive.  I dare to be different.

Walking around the main drag in town we were surprised to see so many dining options, but I guess they all thrive on the heavy flow of tourists.  At the very end of the main drag, we spotted this:

A Mexican restaurant!  In this small town in rural Victoria!  We didn’t end up eating there, but it was comforting knowing that even somewhere so far away from civilization as Warrnambool, there was something that was utterly Phill-friendly.  1 point for rural Victoria.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

#83: Barossa Valley Wineries!

South Australia contains the greatest number of Australia’s wine regions – and premier wine regions.  In fact, roughly 60% of all wine in Australia is produced here.  And the most famous of all of South Australia’s wine regions is the Barossa Valley.  Even though the Barossa is known for its Shiraz – and I prefer whites – the area is so famous that it just had to make my list of 103 Things.  Located a mere 60 kilometers from Adelaide, it’s an easy day trip from the city.  So of course, the Barossa was one of our top destinations for the trip.

We were picked up by our guide – Dallas (he would’ve scored more points if his name was Houston!)

We were quickly shuttled off to our first winery:   McGuigan Wines at Chateau Yaldara!  We were greeted with big barrels of wine:

And many bottles of wine:

And then we actually got to have some wine!

For a region that’s known best for its Shiraz, McGuigan had some pretty incredible whites.  I bought two bottles.  McGuigan also had some delicious reds (as expected) and I would’ve bought some, but I knew there would be more to come.  So we were shuttled off to one of the more commercial wineries – Peter Lehmann – where we had a very exciting find:

That, my friends, is a sparking Shiraz, and we bought a bottle to enjoy with our lunch.  Happiness.  We also made a few new friends on the tour, all of whom conveniently live in Sydney!

Even the girl from Arkansas (far right) lives in Sydney.  I didn’t know she was from Arkansas until AFTER I yelled out “Everyone in Arkansas is stupid!”  My bad.  It didn’t matter – a few more wine tastings and she soon forgot about my insolence.

Then it was off to Longmeil – home of the oldest vineyard in Australia, planted in 1843 and pictured here:

I do believe I’ll be going to the right…

Longmeil’s cellar door was quite an attractive building:

And their wines were great as well.  Again, I bought two bottles.  After Longmeil, we had a brief stop at a park overlooking the valley:

By the time we reached our fourth and final winery – Murray Street Vineyards – we were all a little bit toasted.  I think Murray Street must be the last stop on a lot of wine tours because they had this sign clearly posted in their tasting room:

Ooops.  They let us taste anyway.  Without fail, I bought a bottle of their wine.  Drunks will buy anything.  Overall, the Barossa trumped the Hunter Valley wine region in New South Wales and the Margaret River wine region in Western Australia.  I’m going to have to plan a trip back again to check out some of the other wine regions in South Australia.  In the meantime, I’ll sip on my delicious purchases from the day:

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Easter Bilby

There are heaps of strange animals in Australia.  Sure, most Americans have heard of kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and emus.  The Tasmanian devil is popular thanks to a cartoon, the kookaburra thanks to a children’s song, and most of you probably know the platypus because it looks absolutely ridiculous.  Aside from those, there are tons more species which I had never heard of when I arrived.  Even most Aussies struggle with these.  Just to name a few:  wombats, quokkas, bandicoots, potoroos, quolls, dunnarts, numbats, dibblers, tree kangaroos, pademelons, wallaroos, bettongs… and those are just a fraction of the marsupials.  Go outside of that grouping and you can find echidnas, cassowaries, goannas… plus all those crazy snake and spider species that I don’t want to mention.

I thought I had heard of them all – at least all of the major ones – but I was proven wrong over Easter weekend.  The long holiday weekend was all about one of Australia’s most-adored and critically endangered marsupials:  the bilby!

The bilby refers to the Greater Bilby – a small, nocturnal marsupial that formerly could be found nearly continent-wide, but now mainly inhabits some arid desert areas of Western Australia and a few small pockets of Northern Territory and Queensland.  There are estimated to be only a few hundred bilbies left in the wild as they have encountered challenges such as habitat loss, competition from introduced rabbits, and predation by introduced foxes and feral cats.  A second bilby species – the Lesser Bilby – has been extinct since the 1950’s.  Bilbies are about the size of rabbits, and because they have long ears, slightly resemble rabbits – though, really they resemble more of a rabbit/rat combination if you ask me.

There are several conservation groups devoted to the bilby either directly (Save the Bilby Fund) or indirectly (Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia – which focuses on eradicating rabbits for a variety of reasons including rabbits’ harm to bilby populations).  There’s even a National Bilby Day every year on the second Sunday in September.  These groups have set up bilby breeding programs and have successfully reintroduced the species into conservation areas with predator-proof fences.

Spreading awareness of the bilby’s plight hits an annual high around Easter.  For decades now, conservation groups and others have been promoting a different character around Easter time.  Move over Easter Bunny – the Easter Bilby is here in Australia!  The Easter Bilby is thought to have first been invented in the 1960’s, but it didn’t really show up on most Aussies’ radars until the 1990’s.  The Easter Bilby is the perfect alternative to the Easter Bunny in Australia because  (1) it still looks a bit like a bunny rabbit  (2) walks on 4 legs and burrows into the ground just like a rabbit  (3) is a native species which can help give a bit of local pride to Australians and  (4) isn’t a rabbit.  Rabbits are an introduced species and massive pest here in Australia, so there’s really no reason to glorify them at all.  Also, just like rabbits, magicians can pull bilbies out of a hat!

The Easter Bilby’s rise to popularity in the 1990’s was primarily caused by two factors.  The first was a new series of Easter Bilby books.

Most important is the second reason for the Easter Bilby’s rise to fame:  the Chocolate Easter Bilby!  Haigh’s Chocolate was the first to introduce the Chocolate Easter Bilby in 1991.  A portion of the proceeds went to (and still go to) the Foundation for a Rabbit Free Australia, as well as other projects such as sponsoring the bilby exhibit at the Adelaide Zoo.

It wasn’t long before other Australian chocolate-makers and chocolatiers caught on.  Darrell Lea Chocolates – the largest Australian-owned chocolate-maker – began selling their chocolate bilbies in 1999 with proceeds going to the Save the Bilby Fund.  Move over Hershey’s, Cadbury, and even Lindt and Godiva!  Your chocolate Easter bunnies have nothing on the Chocolate Easter Bilbies here in Australia!

The Easter Bilby first caught my attention when in the Haigh’s Chocolate shop in Adelaide.  Of course, I hadn’t heard of it until then, but I knew I just had to buy one.  There are many reasons to want to save the bilby, but none can get my attention just like the delicious chocolate reason.


Ok, that’s better.  Phew!

Now this is really where the chocolate bilby belongs!

I’m so sexy when I’m inhaling chocolate.  Whatever.  Happy Easter, bilbies!

p.s.  This is my 100th post!  Is anyone reading this???

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Easter in Australia

As it should be, Easter is a one day holiday in the United States.  If it weren’t for the copious amounts of chocolate Easter eggs and marshmallow Peeps in American grocery stores, you’d hardly notice the holiday.  Yes, yes, some things do close for Easter, but it’s always on a Sunday, so half of that stuff is closed anyway.  And really, any place that actually closes for Easter is probably lame to begin with and not worthy of my patronage.

Things are different in Australia.  Easter is a full-on festival.  Now, I’m not Christian, so I don’t exactly know how all of this stuff works, but I’m starting to learn more and more.  I know there’s something involving forty days of misery called Lent, and I believe Ash Wednesday is the day that right-wing Christians incinerate stuff that reminds them of what awful people they really are.  Right?  I’ve heard of Palm Sunday and I know it vaguely has something to do with palm trees (maybe?) but couldn’t tell you much more.  And, finally, I know Mardi Gras is supposed to be some sort of religious observance but it’s been hijacked by drunk people with poor judgment in New Orleans and vastly improved by the gays and their parade here in Sydney.

For me, the best of Easter begins with Shrove Tuesday – or “Pancake Day” as some call it.  Shrove Tuesday isn’t as big in Australia as it is in Britain, but you hear about it due to the sheer number of Brits living in Australia – especially in my office.  Basically, it goes back to dietary restrictions surrounding the Easter holiday and Christians would have to use up their perishables, including milk and eggs and some fatty stuff, and when you combine all that stuff and add some flour, out pop pancakes!  So, it became tradition to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  I like this tradition.

Then, while all the Christians do their Lent thing, the rest of us wait impatiently for the big Easter weekend.  Easter weekend begins with Good Friday.  I had heard about Good Friday in the States, but never knew what it was.  In fact, I still don’t know what it is.  And frankly, I don’t give a damn.  All I know is that Good Friday is a national holiday in Australia so I don’t have to go to work, and to me, that makes it a good Friday.  Woohoo!  On the flip side, most things do shut down, but lucky for us when we were in Adelaide, both the Haigh’s Chocolate store and the Adelaide Zoo remained open for those last minute Easter Egg shoppers and those who don’t know what to do with their rowdy ankle-biters (children in Australian) when they aren’t in school.

Then there is Easter Saturday, which really isn’t anything other than the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but they call it Easter Saturday to distinguish it from other Saturdays.  Most stuff re-opens on Easter Saturday, albeit for shorter hours often times, but at least you can buy beer and tequila and toilet paper and life’s other necessities.

Then comes Easter Sunday and everything closes again.  I guess this is the actual holiday that commemorates when baby Jesus was nailed to a rabbit by the Romans and forced to lay a chocolate egg.  Right?  Oh wait, did I get that wrong?  Well, whatever.  Everything closes and that sort of sucks so I’m going to blame Jesus.  But I’ll forgive him the next day on… wait for it… Easter Monday!  I know – crazy, right?  There’s actually an Easter Monday and it – like Good Friday – is also a national holiday so shit stays closed, but I get yet another day off of work!  Woohoo!  How do the Christians do it?  Jews don’t get any big national holidays in the United States or Australia, but the Christians just seem to get everything.  On a side note, I would like to remind the Christians that both Hanukkah and Passover are eight days long… so they may want to consider swapping them for Christmas and Easter.  Just saying…

So Easter Monday is there and I have no idea whether or not it is actually a religious holiday or a holiday created by the Australian government to give Aussies another day off work, but I’ll take it either way.

Now, most importantly:  food!  Food for Easter is slightly different in Australia.  Yes, Easter eggs are everywhere.  From the looks of it, I would venture to guess that there are as many Easter eggs in Australia as there are in the United States – which is a pretty spectacular feat considering that Australia’s population is about one-fifteenth that of the US.  Of course, big hollow chocolate rabbits are on display and Cadbury Crème Eggs are everywhere.  But note that, unlike in the US, the Cadbury brand doesn’t pop up solely at Easter – it’s the biggest chocolate brand year-round.  Also, on a sad note, Peeps are nowhere to be found in Australia.  What the hell else are we supposed to watch explode in the microwave at Easter?????

Australians eat these things on Easter called hot cross buns – which are sort of like cinnamon rolls but they have less flavour, and the icing on top is restricted to a single cross – something to do with Jesus – instead of the mass of icing that comes with the frozen Pillsbury cinnamon rolls or the rolls at Cinnabon.  If you add some butter to them, they aren’t totally lame, and I guess they are way better than the American fruit cakes at Christmas, but they aren’t anything that stands out.  But they do end up standing out, mainly because they are everywhere:  every bakery, every grocery store, every convenience store, every coffee shop, and even the Adelaide Zoo!  They’re so big that I wouldn’t be half-surprised if they gave them out on public transport during Easter weekend.  Americans:  have you actually seen a hot cross bun?  You probably haven’t.  But you’ve heard of them, right?  That’s because you think there’s a children’s song about them.  Then there’s this weird moment when you start to sing it and realize that you’re actually singing “Three Blind Mice”.  I know it seems strange, but it actually happened to me, and several other Americans I’ve encountered have done the same exact thing.  Seriously, can you sing the “Hot Cross Buns” song without the next line being “see how they run”?  Is there even a song about hot cross buns?  If not, then why do they sound familiar to Americans?!?!?

We were still out at Tara & Simon’s “shack” for Easter, so it was decided that we would do something special:  an Easter lunch cruise on the Murray River!  We were joined by Tara’s parents and her sister (with husband and two small kids in tow).  The boat looked… well… barely seaworthy, but the food wasn’t bad and the weather was nice, so it made for a fun afternoon.

Ok, Liz, the boat is barely seaworthy as it is, but this is making it that much worse!

Later on, we retired to the shack where we feasted on cheese, crackers… and Easter eggs!

The kids did a little Easter egg hunt...

And these little ones found all the hidden eggs and wouldn't share with us big kids!

But it's ok, because I had something better waiting for me inside...

I can firmly attest that a Haigh’s Chocolate Easter Egg is pretty much the best thing about Easter.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shacked Up

Shack  (noun)  \’shak\
1.  a rough cabin
2.  hut
3.  shanty

I was a bit skeptical when Tara & Simon invited us to their country “shack” outside of Adelaide.  Would there be running water?  Electricity?  Horrible country people like the ones from Deliverance?  I can barely handle the deplorable conditions at any given fast food establishment, so the prospects of spending the long Easter weekend in a crudely built cabin miles and miles away from the next nearest gay person were a bit unsettling for me.

Country houses and country shacks are all the rage up and down the Murray River (the continent’s longest) in South Australia.  I agreed to go because I’m an aspiring Australian and I probably needed to have this true blue Aussie experience to earn my Aussie points.  And besides, Australia is all about new experiences and at the end of the day, I’m brave and adventurous and shit like that, right?  Right.

After stopping at the Adelaide Central Markets to stock up on provisions, the six of us piled into two cars and headed east out of Adelaide, over the hills, and into the barren outback.  Actually, it wasn’t really the barren outback, but I’ll say that it was for dramatic emphasis.  It wasn’t long after the paved road ended that we ended up at the “shack”.

Seriously?  This is the shack?  Ok, well, I guess I won’t need the extra rolls of emergency toilet paper I hid away in my luggage and I can resume using my iPhone as I won’t desperately need to conserve the battery.  The shack wasn’t very shacky at all.  It had running water, including hot water and indoor plumbing.  Electricity was courtesy of a series of solar panels and the house consisted of three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, and a massive open plan living room, dining room, and kitchen.  A wrap around deck lead to a big patio complete with a BBQ and fire pit.  The word “shack” instills an image of a place where a scruffy Unabomber-type hermit would hide out.  But once we arrived, I realized that this is more like an unassuming place where a Paula Abdul or Lindsay Lohan-type would come to escape the paparazzi that watch their every drug-induced move.  It was pretty nice.

We spent the weekend relaxing, eating, relaxing, and eating some more.  Our manly man Simon chopped up some wood for the fire while the rest of the ladies (and me!) sat around the patio table with beer and wine and some canapés (that’s hors d’oeuvre in Australian).

Me and Tara!

Me and Liz!

Me and Elsbeth and Jo!

Our primitive “shack” had a full kitchen so meals were extensive and delicious.  Breakfast on the patio anyone?  This is my idea of outdoorsy!

Liz and I took dinner duty the first night – making a red pasta napoletana, a white pasta alfredo, and a green pesto pasta – just like the colours of the Italian flag!  We are so super creative!

In the evening, everyone gathered around the fire…

And then Simon did the ritualistic kangaroo mating dance… or something like that…