Category: Australia

Sydney to Brisbane in 7 days

The Aussie road trip

The Australian road trip is the dream of most gap year travellers.  Bondi in a camper with a surfboard attached. Living it large in Byron. As the DH and I are not surfers, there had been shark attacks in Byron Bay, and we are ‘mature’ in years if not in our heads, we were looking for a different sort of road trip. One that involved food, good food. And we were not disappointed. And, again as happens to us frequently, almost all the best places we found were by happenstance rather than by planning.

It was my idea to road trip from NSW to Queensland. How to do it took up many days of research, where to stop and what to see.

I asked my Aussie friends whether camper or car would be best. The Phoebe hippy in me screamed camper. The organised Monica said calmly, car. The Australians all said, fly.

I looked at pre arranged tours. These seemed to fall into two categories, living it large at party locations or upmarket hotels and wine tasting. We have champagne tastes but beer budgets, and did not want to party in Byron.

The Pacific Highway

Also known as The Legendary Pacific Coast is a 1000 km drive (more if like us you wander off the main highway) that many an Aussie will do in a day or two. We had a week. I booked three two night stays at Port Stephens, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay. This would give us time to see a bit more than just the tick list and well we are British, we measure distance in hours not miles or km. Just ask Bill Bryson.

“If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’

Notes from a Small Island

And lots of Australians do make this road trip. Not so many English 50 somethings, they mostly take a tour it seems. And it being late October we hit the school half term ‘spring break’ with Sydneysiders making the most of the warmer weather, hotel prices were increasing and camp sites were filling up. And the roads were busy.

Choose your car wisely

Choose big and powerful. We didn’t want a SUV so we got a Toyota Camry. If you have driven in Australia you know you don’t want anything they call small or compact. The highway is busy, the speed limit (target) is 100km/ph and it can be a free for all.

Take driving breaks

Our Aussie friends reminded us. Tiredness kills they said. We are English we said. No journey in the UK is longer than 3 hours unless you are on the M25 on a Friday night or the M5 to Cornwall on Bank Holiday weekend. We heeded their advice nonetheless. And those driving breaks paid off with us discovering some hidden gems just off the highway.

Sydney to Port Stephens

Lakeside Cafe Murrays Beach

This is the first of  my ‘just off the highway’ recommendations. We had navigated our way out of the city of Sydney and through the suburbs. Lunch was on our mind. How we stumbled upon this, I don’t recall. I saw a sign to the lake I think. It is based in a popular lakeside and low key resort where Sydneysiders have weekend homes. This is a perfect place to take a driving break – it is not far from the highway, 15 minutes tops,  yet tranquil. After lunch we took a much needed lakeside walk. If you are doing this drive, add this stop to your itinerary. After shaking off Sydney it is ideally placed for a much needed ‘we survived Sydney traffic’ break.

Port Stephens

I chose Port Stephens as destination as it had a reputation for great beaches. And Nelson Bay as it had dolphin watching tours. Tip one. Don’t stay in central Nelson Bay. Tip 2. Don’t stay in Marina Resort. Find out why, here in my review.  Others said about it that you get what you pay for – so we were dreading the other hotels as we had paid about the same for all of them. Learning point here is no you don’t. Because the other two hotels we paid the same for were outstanding. More of them later.

Nelson Bay

Nelson Bay itself is a tired seaside town. Sometime in the 70’s someone thought they would modernise it. And spoil it. It has a marina, tick. For a small town it has a huge supermarket, pubs and drive in bottle shops. This is where families from Newcastle come for a cheap self catering holiday.

Drive a few kilometres either way out of Nelson Bay and everything improves. And you totally get why this is a holiday destination. The scenery, the food, the people. The beaches.  I can only liken it to classic British resorts that have had their heyday and still think a pier and greasy chips with fairground attractions is all you need. It is the Newquay of Cornwall whose neighbours, St Ives, Padstow and Rock, offer so much more for the holiday maker. If I were an Australian I would be a Melburnian. And I expect coffee and craft beer and avo smash. Nelson Bay doesn’t do that.

Or rather it does. Except you need to drive out of town to find these amazing places.

The Nelson Bay Heritage Lighthouse and Reserve is a few minutes drive out of town. Go for the views, go for the museum.

Go for brunch at The Inner Light Tearooms. What a find. The staff were lovely as was the food. The coffee wouldn’t pass muster with a Melburnian but the views make up for it.

Soldiers Point

Drive the other direction out of town toward Soldiers Point and to the marina. Find The Boatshed cafe, on a pontoon, serving amazing food from a tiny kitchen. I can only vouch for the cakes. It was getting choppy so keeping the coffee in the cup was a challenge. But worth it.

Stockton Bay Sand Dunes

Wow. Just Wow. We spotted these from the road as we drove into Nelson Bay and had to visit. No wonder this is a film location – the sand hills are perfect desert locations. I regret now not taking one of the four wheel drive tours on offer. The wind was getting up, surfers were being directed to leave the sea and the tours were on hold for a while. Autumn in NSW. Find out more about the beach and tours here.

Port Stephens to Coffs Harbour

But first brunch.

We left early without breakfast. We negotiated our way back to The Pacific Highway with hopes of finding somewhere along the way – nowhere was open. Back on the highway I spotted a sign to a service station taking us back onto the original Pacific Highway at Karuah. As we pulled in we noticed a cafe opposite and made the best decision ever to have brunch at Four One Six Cafe

Newly opened and owned by a husband and wife team, the eggs served here are free range and from their own chickens. These are foodies, they know food, they love people to love their food and they know where to eat. After brunch, we decided to order something for lunch on the road. Just a sandwich. Ha! it came wrapped in a box with wild flowers to decorate it. And, knowing where we were headed,  plenty of advice of where to eat in Byron Bay.

This is no ordinary roadside cafe. This is the foodies roadside cafe. Go. Visit Port Stephens beaches, avoid the highway and take the old road.

From Port Stephens to Coffs Harbour

The drive was a pleasure. It was like taking the B road that no one knows of in Cornwall. With wooden bridges over rivers reminiscent of Madison County. In my mind at least. To be away from the manic drivers, the trucks and the mayhem made this one of my favourite drives of the trip.

Seal Rocks Lighthouse

The official name for this lighthouse is Sugarloaf Point Light. We made  a big detour to visit this lighthouse. It was worth it. The drive takes you through lush green woodland and then along narrow roads to the car park below the lighthouse. A ten to figteen minute walk through woodland and you reach the lighthouse. As you walk through the trees you can hear the sea, but not see it.

And then, this.

I was particularly delighted to see that the original lamp which is still there was made by Chance Brothers, in Smethwick, where I live. Near Birmingham.

There is also accommodation here – noted for our next visit to Australia. Imagine waking up to this every day.

Reluctantly we had to press on, as we had accommodation booked in Coffs Harbour.

But first lunch.

Port Macquarie

We stopped off at one of the many beaches in this seaside town to eat the packed lunch made by Four One Six.

Port Macquarie reminded me of an English seaside town built in the Victorian era. But with sunshine. We found a spot to eat our lunch, on Flynns Beach  and, if it hadn’t been for the sun, we could have been in St Ives. Surfers, sea, a cafe. And an amazing lunch.

I can’t tell you much more about the town as we only stopped for lunch. I liked it better than Nelson Bay – a lot more. All too soon it was back on the road to get to our accommodation on Day three of the road trip.

Coffs Harbour

It was approaching dusk when we arrived. Fortunately we had good directions for our hotel – as it would have been difficult to find. It was just off the main and very busy highway heading out of the town and after our last hotel, I did not have high hopes. We had paid the same room rate, it was out of town, I was prepared for the worst.

I had to check we were at the right place. Opal Cove Resort, yup right place. Swanky reception area, efficient and helpful staff, such a contrast to the last place. Which absolutely goes against the  ‘you get what you pay for ‘ rule of thumb. It had mixed review on Booking.com – but after the last dump this was swanky. Yes it was showing its age a bit – we were still low season, so the pool area was not really in use, but the rooms were comfortable and clean. The bed had a proper mattress, without lumps, this was an upgrade I was happy with.

opal cove resort

I am guessing our room was cheap because our view was the car park and not the sea. We sneaked a peak at a sea view room – same lay out but with a view. The chambermaid (who let us take the peak) said that although the views were great, the room gets very warm so people close the curtains. Chatting to her, she told us how much she loved her job and said ‘look at my office’. I was to hear that phrase often on this trip.

Same went for the waitress in the restaurant. Loved her job. Reception staff said the same. The hotel had recently been taken over and I don’t know what the management were doing, but they were getting it right. Happy staff = happy customers.

With the hotel being so far out of town, and no other restaurants or hotels near by you are kind of forced to eat in. The cynical me thought that would mean inflated prices and mediocre food. I was wrong on both counts.

The Big Banana

Australia has big things. Big prawns, Big Apples, Coffs Harbour has The Big Banana. So we had to go visit and have a photo taken there. On site there is also an Opal Museum and a toboggan run, this is one big holiday town.  There is also a tourist information office, and if there is only one reason other than that photo to visit The Big Banana, the tourist office is it. We had one day in Coffs Harbour so we wanted to see as much as possible and this is the place to start.

Big Banana

Turns out there is a lot to do here, which is why it is a popular holiday resort. The town itself was very ordinary, modern shops, lots of traffic, not a charming town – but practical- providing accommodation and services for people visiting the area. From the Big Banana to National Parks to a cartoon gallery in a bunker, Coffs Harbour has it all.

The Forest Sky Pier

The Forest Sky Pier was where the tourist office suggested we go as we only had a short time in Coffs Harbour. A ten minute drive off The Pacific Highway above Coffs Harbour through banana plantations, and it is free. If you have more time, there is a circular drive and a number of hikes. Magnificent views of Coffs Harbour.

Sky Pier

We also went for a walk along the huge concrete breakers, protecting Coffs Harbour and to watch the surfers.

Coffs Harbour offers lots to do for the holidaymaker – definitely a lot to do and see for all ages. The town itself has no ‘heart’ it is purely functional. That doesn’t make it a place not to visit though. It is just not what I imagined it would be like.

Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay

Ulmarra – stepping back in time

Driving northwards, over wooden bridges astrid the Clarence River and the strong sweet smell of sugar production was unmissable. We stopped off at Ulmarra. No reason why we chose to stop here – a sign for a pub, the river? I don’t recall. It seems we have an instinct to find the gems just off the highway.

Ulmarra is steeped in history. A hotel, a river, antique shops and a cafe. According to the Clarence Tourism website:

A visit to Ulmarra is like stepping back in time as the village remains one of the finest examples of a 19th Century riverport in Australia. The entire village is classified by the National Trust.

And it has a book shop.

Ulmarra Bookshop

But no ordinary book shop, this was Ulmarra Books and Collectibles.

For those of you know of Hay on Wye, in the UK, and its book shops, this bookshop is reminiscent of what Booths Books was like before it got a make over. A health and safety nightmare and a book lovers dream. We were only there to browse. We did not have room for books. I was getting rid of books at home.

And then Mr Sleeve Notes found this.

A few days earlier we had had the perfect experience of a late Sunday lunch at Doyles, Sydney. Which is probably the best fish and chip shop in the world.

Reader, I bought the book.

And if anything can make a town even more perfect than a good book shop, it is a good cafe. And Ulmarra has one of those too.

J’s cafe

Homemade, organic, home grown, vegan, vegetarian and bloody good coffee. Just heard it was for sale. If it is still there and you are passing, go visit. Food is good, lots of cool surfing photos and a garden.

Ulmarra is the perfect stop off. It is quiet, has historical significance and has coffee and books. And just off  the Pacific Highway. No detour required. There was no tourists there. A few people waiting for the bus, and us. I guess most Aussies speed by intent on getting to Byron Bay and all its attractions, claim they have no history and remain oblivious to it as they pursue the sun and the surf. And that is a mistake.

Byron Bay

Our last stop over on the road to Brisbane and we chose Byron Bay. A major holiday destination. The town centre is busy and full of tourist shops and people in swimwear. They are here for the sun and the surf. Scratch the surface of Byron and there is so much more than surf and sun. And I am not talking about the sharks.

Ramada Ballina

And another great hotel – rooftop pool, good views, free parking and within walking distance of everything you needed, shops, cafes and restaurants. Comfortable rooms – you know you are in a chain. A laundry room neatly tucked in between every two rooms. This is a conference hotel, and it the sort of hotel that would make people want to attend your conference.

Ballina is a functional town, post office, pharmacy, supermarkets, K Mart selling Christmas trees in September. The Thursday Tea Tree Oil Plantation is just outside the town which the only place Idid some shopping. Loved it there – out of the bustle of Byron, yet 5 minutes away by car – if you don’t stop to take in the view and whale watch.

Harvest NewryBar

Where to start?

Probably the best food I have eaten in my life. Seriously good food.

Foraged and seasonal food. Pretty food. Tasty food. OMG food. Every mouthful was a delight. This is casual fine dining at its best. Go eat there. Just go.

We were lucky to get a table as we had not booked. When the server came over it was obvious he was from the West Midlands (where we live) by his accent – Dudley. He was a teacher on a sabbatical. I don’t think he wanted to go back. Waiter in one of the best places to eat in Byron/Australia or teacher at a secondary school in Dudley? I know what I would choose. Anyway, who would have thought, all the way to Byron and we meet someone from Dudley.

The proprietors of Four One Six told us to eat here. Thankyou. Thankyou. Thankyou.

Harvest have a deli next door, a bakery and fine food.

And when we were there they were hosting a wedding, which was fun to watch.

I did not want to leave. This is a place for a long lunch and a cab home.

Can you tell I loved it?

Yup. Best food ever. The bar was set very high.

The Farm

The Farm was another recommendation from the people at Four One Six.

This is what their website says.

The Farm is principally a working farm, we house a collection of micro-businesses all sharing in a common goal. We invite you to come and visit us and see for yourself how a farm operates, supports the environment and contributes to a healthier lifestyle.

Our motto ‘Grow, Feed, Educate’ inspires all that we do, here and for the community at large. We believe that it is first hand experience of seeing how food is grown and produced that makes the eating of it so much more pleasurable. From this simple pleasure sprouts a curiosity and desire to learn more.

Three Blue Ducks on The Farm offers a different style of food from Harvest, more rustic, hearty. There is also a BBQ, a cafe, bakery, bar, shop and the farm. Due to another wedding (Spring Holiday weekend)  service ended early that day. We were never rushed and enjoyed seeing them set up for the wedding and the arrival of the bride.

Food was outstanding. Another hit. Loved it.

Whale watching

Another stand out highlight was whale watching on the hill above the bay. We were joined on the bench by a guy in his late 70’s. He was originally from Yorkshire, still had the accent, had a great chat with him about how he had come out here and his life – a magic moment – and the whales gave us a great show.

It was tough leaving here. I could have stayed for longer. But we had hotel booked in Brisbane and had to leave.

The next part of the trip was manic – highways, roadworks and lots of traffic. This stretch of the highway is the gateway to The Gold Coast. And everybody was heading there for the holiday weekend. For about 3 seconds we considered heading there to see what was the big attraction. Beaches, sunshine and lots of people. We changed our mind and headed straight to Brisbane, negotiating complicated road systems to get to the airport to drop off the car and catch the shuttle bus to Brisbane.

Our road trip was over. time to kick back for a few days, take some trips and let someone else do the driving.

 

 

 

 

 

The view from my office

Welcome to my office

These photos are taken at the workplaces of people I met whilst travelling last year.

Fraser Island

Fraser Island. Technically the truck is Rhett’s office – our guide for three days.

Sunset Fraser Island

This is his evening commute. Sunset, as the tide comes in.

Whales, - Lady Musgrave

The crew get to see this after a day of looking after customers on a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island. You would think that they would be blase about this. No. The crew are every bit as excited as the customers when they spot whales.

New Zealand 90 mile beach

The coach drivers view on 90 mile beach, Cape Reinga, Far North. New Zealand. Every day he sees this. Beats the M25 on a Friday evening. Not a bad commute.

New Zealand The Remarkables

Get a hotel job in Queenstown overlooking The Remarkables. The receptionist at our serviced apartments had previously worked for a hotel on a carpark on the M6 outside Manchester. Which view do you think she preferred?

The Pacific Coast

Or work in the cafe on the Pacific Coast Train for Kiwi Rail.

Trans alpine rail

Or the Tranz Alpine Railway. Just for a change of scenery. The cafe with the best views in the world. And it changes every day. The light, the weather – something new to see.

Northern Territory Uluru

It’s a long commute – but worth it. Uluru. When Rhett isn’t spotting dingos on Fraser Island he spends his winter here.

Which view would you choose? Touch choices I think.

 

 

Travel is my high and I need another shot of it

Travel

When you travel you will possibly be all of these things.

Exhausted, happy, sad, frustrated, angry, in pain, relaxed, tired, excited, snappy, hungry, hangry, worried, stressed, restless and contented. You will never be bored.

I have endured long flights, watched movies I cannot remember, read books, walked dogs on beaches, slept in a swag and scrambled barefoot over rocks to swim in a pool with crocodiles.

I have learned to paddle board, considered divorcing my husband when kayaking in the Katherine Gorge, snorkeled over the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the Kings Canyon Rim, slept for hours on a bus where the landscape never changed, travelled in a 4WD on Fraser Island, seen a kangaroo whose best friend is a pig and visited a city devastated by an earthquake.

In NSW I ate some of the best food I have ever tasted and eaten endless ham sandwiches with tour groups in the NT, breakfasted at Macca’s, brunched on the best poached eggs in Melbourne (nowhere has matched that city for brunch) drank the best coffee made with freshly roasted beans (again in Melbourne) and sulked over lack of beetroot.

But I have never been bored.

How can you get bored when travelling?

When I was planning this four month trip to Australia and New Zealand, someone asked me “don’t you get bored being on holiday for so long?”

What?

I waited a moment and answered with one word. “No.”

What I wanted to say was how could you possibly get bored when you travel? When you are seeing so much, meeting so many new people, doing things that will challenge you and change you?

I didn’t. I just knew that they would not get it. Because what they mean by a holiday and what that is to them is not what it is to me.

This is not a vacation, this is travel

In their map of the world a holiday is seven days escape from work, be it to a caravan in Bognor or a villa in Majorca, eating ice-cream and sitting on the beach. And after seven days of not doing much they think that is it time to go back to the 9 to 5. Because that is what you do. Hate Monday, live for the weekend and if you are lucky get a week away in the sun.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Been there, done that and probably will again. I like holidays. Long ones, short ones, package holiday and round the world travelling ones and weekends in sumptuous B&B’s and camping. I like to go travelling, while I still can.

I don’t get bored when travelling – because every holiday, every weekend away, being down under for four months or a package holiday to Skiathos for a week, a day out to Weston Super Mare, I see as an adventure. That is my map of the world.

I do get bored restless sometimes. When it rained for a week in Melbourne and I had watched every episode of Stranger Things I was ready to climb walls. Cabin fever did set in. Previous to this house-sit I had been on a ten day adventure in the Northern Territory. And while I had a love/hate relationship with that trip, with hindsight it was one of the most amazing journeys I have ever been on.

I was a broken woman

I ached and I wanted a bed and a shower and not to worry in case a dingo stole my shoes. After seven days of continuous rain and when the bites had healed and I had eaten brunch and cakes and Greek food and done all the washing I was restless. Eager to get back on the road again. Travel is my ‘high’ and I needed another shot of it.

Housesitting and travel plans

Yes I loved the comfy beds the hot showers, the food, did I mention the food in Oakleigh? Yet I was eager for more. New people, old friends, trying new food, seeing new places, getting on a plane (despite pre travel jitters that hit me before every flight) I crave the change. I feel that I may be addicted to change. Once healed I needed adventure again.

I could have wallowed. I didn’t. There was a road trip from Sydney to Brisbane to plan and book. New Zealand was a blank page. Flights in, flights out and no plan to get from A to B. So while it poured with rain, in between dog walking, kamikaze magpie dodging and eating souvlaki I stopped procrastinating and got on with transport and itinerary planning.

And yes I had procrastinated. Most of the trip had been planned in March. Flights had been booked, trips to Fraser and Lady Musgrave Island planned to fit in with flights. The NT trip to Kakadu, Alice Springs and Uluru was sandwiched between two house sits in Melbourne. An unexpected three day window filled with a visit to Tasmania.

Yet this bit of the trip was blank. And while I like to think of myself as free spirited Phoebe, Monica is stronger in me. I need a plan. Yes I do like to have room for some spontaneity, I am not that rigid, yet I have learned that I do need to know some basic whens and hows and so does my husband. I don’t want to arrive in a strange city without a bed for a night. That said we arrived in Brisbane with a room pre booked and hated it so much we found another room in 5 minutes thanks to free wifi and Booking.com.

This needing to know where I will be sleeping is possibly a symptom of my anxiety. I didn’t know that till now (see this writing malarkey really is my therapy). Perhaps realising that I can turn on a sixpence will reduce this anxiety and  the need to be in constant control?

New Zealand Plans

When you have a month in New Zealand, a country that has so much to thrill, excite and amaze you, a plan is good. When a third person who has different interests to you is joining you for a couple of weeks and would rather put needles in his eyes than go on a tour of wineries, you need a plan.

In 2011 Phil and I travelled in a campervan from Auckland to Christchurch. When it was good it was awesome when it was bad it was not so awesome. We had no itinerary, booked as we went along and it worked out OK but we missed so much and ran out of time.

This time, after wasting hours getting jaw dropping quotes from Camper Van and Motorhome hire companies, trying to work out how to fit in almost everything we wanted to do I and failing, I used a travel agency, New Zealand Self Drive Tours. I found them via Facebook (sometimes those annoying ads are useful) gave them a list of what me, my husband and my son wanted to do, flights details and they planned and booked it for me.

I worked with them to tweak it and there is some spontaneity as the last 8 days there is no plan. No accommodation, no activities just the car and us and I like that we have no idea where we will be or what we are doing. I also like that for most of the time we just turn up and the hotel is booked and the car is waiting for us and we know how many km’s we will be driving each day.

Road trip New Zealand

I am currently in New Zealand, have been for a week and so far the plan is working. The car is easier to drive than a camper. Not for one moment have we wished we had got one.

The rooms have been warm and clean and the Coastal Pacific Rail journey was breathtakingly brilliant. Phil and I have travelled to Christchurch to Picton on the Pacific Coast Railway, driven from Picton to Christchurch via Blenheim and Hanmer Springs.

In Blenheim we had a lovely day touring the wineries with Highlight Wine Tours and were guided around the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre Air by Bunty, a 96 year old World War 2 Spitfire pilot.

We have bathed in thermal pools in Hanmer Springs, driven past snow capped mountains and followed a steam train through Weka Pass. Yesterday we rode on a vintage tram around Christchurch and walked around the city at sunset. Tomorrow we travel the Tranz Alpine Railway.

Yes I am worried how I am going to cope when I get back to the small house in November. Being in one place and shopping and cooking and the grey skies. I am sure that the Farsickness will kick in and know that I need to come up with a strategy to manage that.

I am confident that I will.

In the meantime – New Zealand awaits.

There will be mountains and geysers and hot beaches and Hobbits and planes and trains and automobiles to transport us.

#notboredyet

 

New Zealand by Train -The Pacific Coast Railway with KiwiRail

  • Long White Cloud

The KiwiRail Pacific Coast Railway

Travelling on the KiwiRail Pacific Coast Railway had been on the someday list for far too long.

Boarding KiwiRail in Christchurch

Someday became today

For five years I have dreamt of it. It became reality due to saving and planning. And a real desire to make it happen.

This was Day One of a four week trip, by plane, train and automobile with New Zealand Self Drive Tours. What a way to start. Travelling along the Pacific coast from Christchurch to Picton. In 2011 I drove along part of this route in a camper van with my husband and it was breath taking. We were staying in Blenheim and while at the station this train was there, with its open air viewing carriage, dining car and carriages with huge windows to maximise the view from your seat. I said then that I would be back and I would travel on this train. And five years later, here I am.

Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, did not disappoint.

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I should be so lucky

So many people when they heard of my travel plans tell me that I am lucky.  If lucky means working and planning for this trip since 2011. If lucky means focussing on what I needed to do and I De-cluttered and downsized for this. If lucky means assessing what was important to me and knowing that it wasn’t stuff it was travel, then I am lucky.

I wish I could travel

And oh the people saying that they wished they could travel. The ones that say ‘I’d love to go to Australia/Canada/Rome/Paris but… I can’t because’ …

How many times have I heard these words ? Hundreds of times.

Just do it

Well I just did it. One of many things that had been on that someday list for far too long. I made them happen this year. Put a date on it.

Don’t tell me you wish you could. If you really want to, you will find a way.

Uluru dawn

Uluru – Adventures in the Northern Territory

Travelling to Uluru is not an easy journey.

This is week 10 of a 4 month trip down under. There have been highs and there have been lows. Uluru is hours from everywhere.  The landscape is unchanging for many miles. More than once I asked to be woken up when there was something interesting. Australia is a big country.

Here I reflect on road trips, being an older traveller, getting ill 1500 km from a pharmacist and why I would do it all again in the blink of an eye.

Double Rainbow during sunrise at Uluru

My best and worst moments were on a trip of a lifetime to the Northern Territory – visiting Kakadu, Lichfield, Alice Springs and Uluru.

Sunrise at Uluru

The worst because I so frequently felt old.

Despite being a 25/39 year old hipster in my head. Not that I was ever a hipster. Nor a hippy, although I did have embroidered flared Levis, purple t shirts, a cowbell and long hair in the 60/70s.

Travelling Coral in the 1970s

I hung out with hippy types in the mid 70s, was a student in the late 70s, went on demos and then in the 80’s fell for the lie. Got a job, got a house, got debt. 

Clifton, Bristol - a balcony party 1979

What my brain thinks (I am young, I can keep up) is completely opposite to how my body reacted to keeping up with a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings on a 10 day Darwin to Alice road trip.

You need a certain level of fitness

Yes I knew there would be walking and some swimming and camping. I reckoned I could cope physically with all of those.

And I did mostly. Phil and I had ‘trained’ for this insomuch we walked up Vesuvius when in Sorrento and clambered to Kastro on Skiathos. We walked every day in Melbourne, averaging 10,000 steps a day. I must have been fitter – or so I thought.

Then I got The Rash. In the middle of nowhere with no pharmacy for 1500 kms. Or at least one that was open when we were in anything vaguely recognisable as a town.

The skin at the back of my knees was inflamed with a heat rash. My skin was sore and weeping and the pain made walking difficult, sitting painful.

It was hot and sticky on the minibus, the only trousers that made it bearable were linen. The sun was strong, so I needed to avoid that and we were sleeping in swags under the stars.

The nights were cold so I needed thermals to keep warm. Which were not good for The Rash. This trip involved travelling long distances and sitting for hours on a bus where I could not stretch out my sore legs. My ankles started to swell.

I may have whinged a tiny bit.

Losing it and wanting to go home

One evening, while the rest of the group walked up a hill to see the sunset and the stars, I stood in the shower drenching my legs in cold water and sobbed.

Miles from anywhere - NT Darwin to Alice Road Trip

At that point I wanted to go home. Back to England.

I was homesick, missed my bed, my friends and my children. I was tired. The pace was relentless. A lie in was 6.30am. Frequently up and out of the sleeping bag at 5am.

I hated the swags, the manky sleeping bags, the breakfasts, the stars, the young people who had more energy and were so effing cheerful.

I was in pain and wanted a bed and not to eat bloody stir fried chicken and pasta and rice and ham and cheese. I hated the greedy ones on the tour who took all the food. I wanted to be sipping latte not drinking shit tea.

I wanted brunch.

You can’t call me Mum

The bright young things called me ‘mum’. They genuinely thought it endearing and affectionate. At the time I found it derogatory. Sorry guys. I did. I love being a mom to my own kids, but I don’t want to be seen as mumsy.

Let’s be honest here. It made me feel f***ing old. After all I was only disinfecting the camp kitchen. And putting all the pans in size order.

So I did what I had to do. Gave myself a talking to. Because, if we didn’t already have the ‘difficult one’ on the trip (who alienated almost everyone) I was in danger of being the other ‘difficult one’.

Don’t be the ‘one’

A friend once told me that if you don’t know who the ‘one’ is, it is probably you.

I did not want to be the ‘one’. And yes I am old enough to be their mom so get over yourself Coral.

As well as giving myself a good talking to, I also took wine. It helped with the pain, the lack of sleep on a creepy campsite in swags. I recall we played the ‘I don’t like (insert household chore) game. (Look it up). I started to lighten up. The others went to see the haunted rooms and I climbed into my swag. Anyone who was there feel free to fill in the gaps between the game and the haunted rooms bit.

Fast forward to next day with hangover. Slept on the bus a lot. In the Never Never there is only so much nothing to see.

Once we got to the dirty and weird Barrow Creek Hotel – in an area that is renowned for the kidnapping and murdering of backpackers, I engaged in my new strategy to deal with the difficult ones.

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No, not murder or kidnap.

It was to prevent the greedy ones stealing all the food by making sure I got hands on with lunch prep.

The guide makes or breaks a tour

On this 10 day tour we had three very different tour leaders.

Guide Rowdy would not let us slice a tomato but thought it ok to throw food waste over my rucksack. I always seemed to be last to get lunch behind the greedy ones. And because I was polite and didn’t push to the front of the queue unlike the greedy ones, I was fed up of getting only one slice of tomato with my ham.

Guide number two, Simon (the best one on this 10 day trip) let us get on with making lunch. How I enjoyed telling the greedy boy to go away as I wasn’t ready to serve lunch as he hovered, greedily. This was the greediest one who never lifted a finger to help – People who are kinder than me thought me brusque. Simon (who is not kinder than me) made him pot wash the night before because while he was first to eat yet was last to clean his dish. And he still did not get it. Yeah -he was now officially the other ‘one’ on the tour.

I also made sure I got my plate of food first. I actually got to eat some beetroot. Hoo blooming ray. Being hangry is not a good thing for me at anytime, being hangry and ill was turning me into a monster.

Guide three. Can’t remember his name. This was his last trip, he had stopped loving being a tour guide and it is a good time to go. He trusted me with the keys to the truck and let me eat all his biscuits. Not so bad.

A town like Alice

A Town Like Alice

I got respite in Alice Springs. The nearest thing to civilisation since Darwin. And Darwin is not so civilised.

A rainy day in Alice revived me. I had clean clothes. Visited The Flying Doctors. Slept in a proper bed. I got medication for The Rash.

Royal Flying Doctor museum, Alice Springs

And oh joy, proper food in Alice Springs. Page 27 as recommended by the tour guides. Poached eggs. Bacon. After days of camp food this was nectar.

Breakfast in Alice Springs

I was ready for Uluru

But I was still lacking in confidence.

The greedy ones were no longer on tour with us.

The “strong 10’s” were also absent. I missed them as when they were with us my hair looked decent as one was a gifted braider. I also missed their energy, their positive outlook on life and their confidence in themselves.

Travelling Coral in the NT

What I do realise now was that they had, and it is what I used to have, supreme confidence in their ability to do anything.

They were also happy with the way they looked.

Thermal springs in the NT

Travelling Coral, Knossos, Crete 1979

 

While I hate to look in a mirror and have a confidence rating of zero.

Even when I was young I never considered myself as a ‘ten’. Never. I was too skinny and too tall.

A squiggly wiggly with a bony bum. I was so jealous of their confidence, their looks and their outlook on life. I may have become a tiny bit bitter.

 

What I also got from the group was to learn to be less uptight and let my hair down, (metaphorically, I preferred it braided). I went clubbing (hated it) in Darwin and sang karaoke (loved it) in Alice. Can’t beat them, join them.

Now I can’t work out if being grown up and sensible is what I am or being carefree is irresponsible but what I want to be

*At 25 I was not a young, chill hipster who dreams of Portland and free cold brew coffee

I was married with a mortgage and a mom to a young baby. I had a proper job. I paid my taxes, read the Sunday papers and only drank wine at dinner parties. I had bought the lie.

Travelling Coral gets married 1983

And now? I am not 25 or 39 I am 57. And while a couple in the group said that they wished their mothers were out clambering over rocks and swimming in croc infested pools, like me, I still think that I was old and slow and held people back.

Yes, many were kind and helped me over difficulties, but all most of the time I thought ‘who the hell am I kidding?’

Foil hats so the Aliens won't get us - NT road trip - with my adopted for the trip kids

I may have redeemed myself when making tinfoil hats to protect us from the aliens. For my adopted children. Full on mom mode and it made me happy to help.

Yes, I know how crazy this sounds. The making hats to protect us from the aliens bit. Not the mom bit, but actually it was crazy and they are crazy and I needed to learn how to be a big kid again.

And after all, this is the Northern Territory.

Where a pig and a kangaroo are ‘companions’. How crazy is that?

The kangaroo who loves a pig

Focus on the good stuff

I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, feeling old I failed to notice what I could and did contribute.  I hope that at least one of the group benefited from our chats. My empathy was remarked upon. Age and experience were respected.

Little did they know that I have not got my life sorted by a long shot.

I was so busy beating myself up, comparing myself with those younger, prettier, healthier and fitter than I, that I didn’t acknowledge them. The remarks made that their moms would never dream of sleeping in a swag or scaling the rim of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park fell on ears that did not want to hear it.

All I could think was that my knees hurt and I have friends my age who run marathons and here I am struggling to walk up a hill. And yet no one thought I was a wimp for deciding not to tackle the Valley of the Winds walk in pouring rain. (Opted for a nap on the bus).

But then this is what road trips are about. The journey. Literally and metaphorically. We are all travelling through life.

There is no denying, The Northern Territory  was bloody brilliant. Like Child Birth – the rewards outweighed the blood, sweat and tears.

Uluru was totally worth all those kilometres on a bumpy bus, endless ham sandwiches and being trampled on by a wallaby. Even The Rash could not spoil it for me.

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Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat. Oh yes. Even the swags.

Sleeping in swags in the Northern Territory

Let me tell you, I would rather be a 56 year old with a bunch of 20/30/40 somethings who are living life than be with a bunch of saga louts who see it all through a window of a luxury coach and live with regret.

And on the last night, as we checked into the posh hotel and not a hostel, I was happy. Hot shower, fluffy towels, luxury toiletries and fresh bed linen on Queen Sized comfortable mattresses. Oh how I was tempted to get room service and watch a movie.

Luxury in Alice Springs at Doubletree by Hilton

But something was wrong. I could not stand the noise of the telly. Hotel food was bland and hey the A Team were in Alice at Uncles.

Karaoke at Uncles in Alice Springs

So Phil and I joined them all for beer, burgers and karaoke. And it was good. We were a group who bonded well. I learned a lot from them all. Even the greedy ones.

And next?

Phil and I are now into week 3 of the second house sitting in Oakleigh. Week one was spent resting our tired bodies. Much needed R&R.

Soon we will be on the road again, to Sydney and driving to Brisbane. I am so looking forward to being on the move again. The wanderlust is strong in this one.

I have booked another group tour to Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island. I will not to be the ‘one’ on this trip. I have reflected and regrouped. I have cream in case the rash comes back.

And then we go to New Zealand for a month where Phil and I will catch up with our son. Who can call me Mom.

Not one to wish my life away, but I am counting down the days to seeing my son.

Meanwhile, Australia here I come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On not being a hipster

I am currently residing in Melbourne, most liveable city, hipster central and coffee capital of the world.

I have a latte daily as I cannot take the flat white nor the espresso (although I let the barista choose the beans).

In my head I am 25*. And this silly quiz agrees.

It has been raining rather a lot. I have had to find something to occupy my mind while grounded by the weather. Cabin fever has set in.

We Know Your Age Based On Your Hipster Choices

You got: 25

You’re a young, chill hipster who dreams of Portland and free cold brew coffee. Just remember to water your succulent, because you have a lot of hipster years ahead of you!

My body keeps telling me otherwise and it is bloody shit.

Anyways – I did the quiz again today and got this:

We Know Your Age Based On Your Hipster Choices

You got: 39

You’re 39, so you’re not a baby hipster anymore. You know how to make all the right hipster decisions when it comes to food and travel (WHEN IN DOUBT TAKE A LYFT), so you should be proud!

Probably a more accurate picture of what I would like to be. I thought I had answered the questions the same but I think what swung it was I chose beer not coffee. I thought I chose beer the first time. I definitely chose Portland as my city despite not having been there because Melbourne wasn’t a choice. Sydney was. Sorry not sorry. Indeed the only questions I understood were the ones about the cities and the refreshments. I have no idea who or what Warby Parkers are and the quiz is clearly an ad for a designer soda drink I have also never heard of and am unlikely to buy.

Intellectually challenged/trying to find something to fill the endless days of rain….

I had to look up what ‘lyft‘ is. This is the second word this week I have had to look up aka Google – the other one was ‘plebiscite‘. This is because, despite not watching the news, you would have to live in a hole in the ground to not know that there will be a plebiscite for Australians to decide on legalising same sex marriage.

Whether being old/not Australian or just plain thick – anyway hands up I didn’t know what these words were – so I did some research.

What I am sure of is that more Australians seem to know about plebiscite than they did the Census. There is certainly more media cover about it.

Let us talk about Brexit

If the UK had called for a plebiscite and not a referendum over membership of the EU maybe the UK would not be in such a mess as it is now.

It is worth me mentioning here that I know very little about politics and political processes but I voted Remain because I did my research. That research convinced me that the UK is stronger in the EU. I also want to live in Greece. Which may have swayed my decision somewhat, but at least I know what I want. Unlike the Brexiteers.

The census

I also took part in the Australian Census because, having done my research on that too, I was legally obliged to. As one who thinks voting in the UK ought to be compulsory, I was happy to comply with a country that has compulsory voting. The fact that it was shambolic is beside the point. To ask a tourist how many children they had given birth to was absolutely pointless. No, still haven’t worked that one out.

Anyway, as ever this ageing hipster has meandered off topic. As I do. Attention span of a flea.

Brunch in Australia – the good the bad and the ugly

Brunch figures a lot in my eating out in Australia. I have written before about my love affair with brunch – a meal that Brits, IMHO, still haven’t got right.*

In the UK, a cooked breakfast is usually a fry up be it the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even regional breakfast. You will see all day breakfasts on some menus, often dressed up as brunch. My local pub in the UK, The Dog, has recently added brunch to the menu – yet finishes serving it at 12 noon and only offers it on a weekend. That is not brunch. Brunch needs perfectly poached eggs, sourdough, good bacon and excellent coffee. And served at least till 3pm if not all day. A full English and bacon sandwiches is not brunch. That is breakfast. I like breakfast, I do, but I like brunch better.

In Australia they know brunch. Smashed avo, corn fritters, beetroot and spinach with free range poached eggs. This is one of my favourite brunches offered at Coin Laundry only a few minutes walk away from where we are currently housesitting in Melbourne. Available from 7am to 3pm. For two of us, with a latte each, the bill is Aus$42.

Seven Seeds. A Good Morning Breakfast Burger and Eggs and Waffle Benedict, two items from their current, all day menu. Proper Brunch. With speciality coffee. Aus$45. Great atmosphere, great staff, excellent food, awesome coffee. We have got to go back as our table companions had the Brioche French Toast and it looked, and they said it tasted, amazing.

And then there is Triim.

Phil and I were hungry, we had just been in a hot, dusty substation, looking at ACDC things. (It was Open House Weekend). We needed brunch. Seven Seeds seemed too far to walk to. It was Sunday and would probably be a line. Instead we wandered up Little Bourke street, looking for its sister cafe, couldn’t find it and then saw Triim on Hardware Lane, a studenty/backpacker district of the city and chose to brunch there.

Oh dear. At first it seemed ok, it was busy, all ages, shoppers and students, backpackers and families. Efficient staff. But. You knew there would be a but.

We ordered a Big Breakfast and a Morning Glory. Yes they can poach eggs. However the mushrooms were slimy and the sausage, I can only assume it was a chicken sausage, was horrible. The bread was poor quality. Butter is served in plastic pouches. We left feeling bloated and later felt quite headachey as if we had eaten poor quality food. Bill came to Aus$42.40. Hardware Lane is an interesting place to people watch. Go watch them from someplace else.

Was this the worst breakfast we had in Melbourne?

No. Because we went to McDonald’s. I know, I know. Phil and I had an early start, we were off out on a tour and had to be at Fed Square for 8.55am. Macca’s is nearby the pick up point. We had not had a Macca breakfast for over a year. Indeed it was at this Macca’s and for the very same reason. We do not learn.

Aus$18 for two sausage and egg muffins, with a hash brown and a latte. Not half a good as Triim, but nearly as good people watching as commuters dash from Flinders Street Station. Not anyway near the quality, ambiance or service levels of either Seven Seeds or Coin Laundry.

I know, it is McDonalds, I don’t expect silver service. Yet, at just under half the price of the other brunches Phil and I have had in Melbourne, this is an expensive and insubstantial breakfast. The only good thing I can say is that they have baristas in McDonalds in Australia (at least at this branch) so the coffee is not awful. It is not awesome, better than coffee in an English McDonalds. Not hard to beat that. Oh and surprisingly I didn’t get headaches like I did with the breakfast from Triim.

What really concerns me that this is the everyday breakfast for many commuters and school students. Melbourne has the best coffee in the world and Melburnians are now buying coffee here. And adding a McMuffin to their order. I don’t see any struggling indie coffee shops in Melbourne, somehow there are enough coffee addicts to keep the good ones going. I do see more coffee shop chains in Melbourne though. And that is not a good thing.

So, if you are in Melbourne, find a good brunch spot. It is not hard.

To help you, here is a list to help you out.

*There are exceptions. Birmingham Breakfast Club occasionally arranges special breakfast events in the city. Only I would call them brunch because there is usually alcohol involved and they don’t start at the crack of dawn.

If you want to know more about these wonderful Breakfasts in Birmingham here are some links. I include these only because I am fed up of people Bashing Birmingham. We have good food in Birmingham. We have good other things too. Such as the two towers that inspired Tolkien.

Full to the Brum  – an award winning Brummie Blogger

Eat with Ellen  – one of my dining companions at Nomad now re born as The Wilderness

Breakfast at Simpsons

Waiter there’s a bug in my brunch

Birmingham Breakfast Club 

 

Don’t rain on my (penguin) parade – Phillip Island and The Mornington Peninsula

Phillip Island and The Mornington Peninsular

Last year Phil and I were lucky and had glorious weather when we visited The Mornington Peninsula with Melbourne Coastal Touring. This year, let us say, the weather was varied.  We are pretty much used to the unpredictability of Melbourne weather – after all this is the city that has four seasons in one day. We had booked again with Melbourne Coastal Touring, this time to extend the trip to Phillip Island, to see The Penguin Parade.

Penguin Parade on Phillip Island

The forecast was not good. Maximum of 12 degrees and lots of rain. Rug up we were told.

 

We looked like this before….                and like this afterwards.

We took a rug. Did not/could not use it. Sitting down was not an option. It was cold, windy, dark and raining stair rods. What use would a rug be?

Most people wisely bought these plastic rain covers, they still got soaked.

However penguin parade was worth getting drenched for.

OK. These are not real penguins. You are not allowed to take photos of the penguins. But you are allowed to take photos of toy penguins. So we did.

While the penguins were a joy to observe, I would recommend you do the trip in the summer or spring. Or choose a clear, dry autumn or winter day (and rug up). Check that weather forecast folks. It was cold and wet and the maximum anyone held out was fifteen minutes. A long way to go to see penguins in a squall.

Phillip Island

Before we went to the Penguin Parade, Campbell took us to see a few other highlights of Phillip Island, including a blustery walk at The Nobbies to see some nest boxes and Woolamai Beach.

English visitors may find some of the place names familiar on this island. Many places are named after towns on the Isle of Wight.

We visited the restricted area of Phillip Island Nature Park next to where you visit Penguins Parade. This area is closed at dusk to protect the wildlife. Once a residential area, eventually the beachfront residences were demolished in order to restore a habitat where the penguins and other wildlife would thrive.

More than penguins

The Penguin Parade is the last visit you make on this full day tour. I started with it at the top of this post as it is the highlight of the tour and the main reason people take this trip. However, before the penguins, there is a lot more to do and see on the way to Phillip Island.

Moonlit Sanctuary

The highlight of the day, for me, was the visit to the Moonlit Sanctuary. Sorry penguins. You are cute. I have wanted to see you ever since I watched a documentary about you but not in Force Ten weather conditions. I enjoyed the visit to the sanctuary more. Sorry not sorry.

Happily, the sun was shining when we arrived at Moonlit Sanctuary. Phil and I have visited similar places before, the first one while traveling along The Great Ocean Road. The owner of this private sanctuary shoved a  scruffy teddy bear with a koala perched upon it in front of us for photo opportunities. The wallabies and kangaroos were in pens. It was all a bit scruffy and run down. Not so Moonlit Sanctuary.

At Moonlit Sanctuary, the visit to the koalas are strictly monitored and limited.

The wallabies and kangaroos are free to roam.

Only the dangerous and endangered are restricted.

Except the geese. They roam free. They were scary – they had chicks – and daddy goose was not letting anyone near his family. One even took a chunk out of a wallaby.

It is in a beautiful setting, there is a cafe and rest room there and it would make a good family day out in the summer. Everyone on our tour thoroughly enjoyed their time here. Including the tour leader, Campbell. I think he loves his job.

Lunch and wine tasting at Montalto

On this tour lunch was a shared selection of three stone baked pizzas.  Broccolini, quattro formaggi pizza;Napoli, buffalo mozzarella & basil pizza;Roast pork, garlic, stracciatella, pickled chilli, chives pizza served with Chargrilled kale and broccolini with miso and sunflower at the Piazza Cafe at Montalto.

Lunch was preceded by a wine tasting and a stroll around the sculpture garden. The weather was still on our side.

I am assuming that Melbourne Coastal Touring are trying out various eateries for their tours. For a lunch this was a beautiful location. The wines we tasted were all very good. While I prefered the food I had last year at Red Hill Epicurean I can see why Montalto, with the sculpture garden, is a good location to stop off at on this tour. It offers the opportunity for a much needed stroll in the sunshine after being on a bus for over an hour.

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And as this tour naturally appeals to families with young children (cute penguins, koalas and kangaroos) it is a perfect place for a good quality pizza lunch for families, offering a relaxed environment for parents and children to explore the sculptures. Yet it is grown up enough for adults who enjoy wine tasting and a good lunch in pleasant surroundings.

It is worth noting that Montalto also has a fine dining option (12 Chefs Hats in The Age Good Food Guide since 2002). Pizza in the Piazza cafe offers good food for tour groups or those who want a more relaxed dining experience in a stunning location.

Beach Huts and Arthur’s seat

No visit to The Mornington Peninsula would be complete without the obligatory stops at the beach huts and Arthur’s Seat.

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Even on a cold day, as it was clear (for now) the views are stunning. The beach has been eroded considerably since our last visit in 2015.

Flinders and Chocolate

As we had made good time on the journey to Mornington, we were offered an optional visit to the chocolate shop at Flinders.

Phil and I had been before and so decided to wander around Flinders instead of taste chocolate. Delicious and quirky as it is, we are not big chocolate fans.

Flinders is a small town with some charming shops selling designer kitchenware, clothes and art with a General Store and Post Office. And interesting birds.

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Why use a tour company?

One of the reasons Phil and I choose to go on tours is to meet new people. On this tour there was a family from Jakarta and a young couple from Singapore. Interesting conversations over the dining table (every one asks us about Brexit) learning about other cultures, exchanging stories of travel and tours.

Expert knowledge

Another reason to use a tour is that you get the knowledge of your tour guide. If you use a really good company (check them out on TripAdvisor and Viator) the guides can make the day. Jason, who owns Melbourne Coastal Touring, was brought up and still lives in Mornington. It is a small family run company. Repeat business and recommendations are important to them. Quality matters. This is not always the case with all operators, so do your research.

Why not drive yourself?

I like to be driven. By a competent driver who knows the roads. I can vouch for both Jason and Campbell. If you did this trip yourself, it is almost a two hour drive to Melbourne from Phillip Island. And in wind and rain and the dark, not a drive I would want to do. Also the driver doesn’t get to appreciate the views so much along the way and there would be no tipples at the vineyard. Another reason to use a good tour operator.

Addendum

Melbourne Coastal Touring are now under new management and trading as Melbourne Boutique Tours. I am sure they are just as good as they were and would continue to recommend them. I will try them out next time I go Down Under.

 

 

 

 

Go travelling while you can – don’t wait for someday

Travel is in my DNA

I have to go travelling while I still can.

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age… perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping… I fear this disease incurable.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Don’t put your life on hold

My aunt, the day before she died, said to me ‘I wish I had seen more of the world instead of looking after everyone else, and doing what I thought was the right thing’. My mother, the traveller, had no such regrets.

And while we had the concerns over the health of his mom, my mother in law, Phil and I knew that we will continue travelling.

Phil has a brother. My local minister and former work colleague reminded me of this when I expressed my concerns about our forthcoming extended travel plans, before Val passed. At the time she had just gone to a nursing home and we hoped her health would improve. As the minister said, Chris, the brother, he will be there while you are away. Phil discussed this with his brother. What they will do if this happens while we are away, hence the aforementioned family commitments.

My 84 year old friend, who travelled extensively after her retirement said much the same. ‘You cannot put your life on hold, the outcome will be the same whatever you do. Travelling was the best thing I did, it enriched my life so much’.

In 2011 as we prepared to go on our first RTW trip – my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I asked her if I should not go, and stay with her. Without a second thought she told me that I must go. It has been a dream of mine for so long. She would not hear of cancelling plans. On our return she was one of the few people who were genuinely interested in the trip. She too lived to travel. She would never had made me stay. I thank her for that.

And so before the extended travel commences in July we booked some time away as Phil was exhausted with driving 3 hours to visit his mom every other week. With hospital visits and worries about finding a nursing home that didn’t smell. He was anxious about her and needed a break.

My mom in law died while we were away in Sorrento. Phil had spent two days and nights at her bedside in hospital before we went away. The nurses said that he must still go on the planned holiday.

Val had had a lovely day with her family the weekend before she passed away.  She went home, gave her granddaughter a beautiful ring  and went to her local pub for dinner. She did seem to be in better health. The timing seemed right to go away for a few days.

But Sepsis had different plans and by the following Tuesday the nursing home had to admit her to hospital.

We had been in Sorrento one night. Her son, my husband’s brother, Chris was with her. Yes we felt sad and guilty but we knew it was going to happen but not when.

We stayed in Sorrento and filled the days with extensive sight seeing and walking. It helped. Chris did all the necessary and immediate things that needed to be done, and on our return we joined him and supported him to do everything else we had to do.

Now, a few weeks later, we have had the funeral in Winchester and the remembrance service in Yorkshire. We have spent more time with family than we usually do. Caught up with people we haven’t seen for many years. This happens when people die. We have cried and we have laughed. Shared happy memories. Discovered interesting things when sorting through possessions including some amazing photos on old slides.

These pictures were the turning point in their grief, for Phil and Chris. They reminisced over childhood memories. Saw their parents at happier times, as they remembered them, young and vital. The mom and dad they grew up with. Having spent months seeing their mom getting older and unrecognisable at times, had taken its toll on both of them. Discovering these photos and sharing them with people in Yorkshire who went to school with their parents evoked so many happy memories. Talking about the old days, the happy times, it healed them.

I met the minister again yesterday and told him about this. Thanked him for his wise words. They had helped us to remember that we have support from family. We don’t have to do everything, we can ask for help. And remember to laugh. Death is sad, of course it is. As the minister told me yesterday, it is good to recall happy memories and laugh. That is what we did, I told him, dinner with the family, we cherished our times together and laughed.

There is still a lot to do. Paperwork, mountains of it. A house to clear, major decluttering (so far 30 bags to charity and the same to the tip) some more legal stuff, a house to sell. We had made a start when she was in hospital. It is a big job. 80 plus years of memories in dusty boxes.

Phil was making lists of lists and worrying about all we had to do. He got stressed again so I booked another, more relaxing, holiday to Skiathos after the funeral. Travel is our medicine as well as our disease.

We cannot tick all the things off before we go to Australia in July. We can’t. So we won’t. We will do what we can. Prioritise the legal things. Trying to fit everything in a tight schedule will exhaust all of us. And will make use feel failures because we won’t succeed. Our health and well being, and that of the family, has to come first.

We will carry on when get home in November. We can put some things on hold. Just not life.

 

 

 

Packing it all in – in defence of the package holiday

Travelling Coral

Package Holiday Coral

Are you a traveller who plans their own itinerary or a package holiday fan?

I ask because I want to know what defines a traveller.

I started my blog, Travelling Coral, to document my first round the world trip in 2011. It turns out I like this blogging malarkey, so I carried on. I like travelling, eating and I like package holidays. I love to have the sun on my back and writing about where I have been, what I have eaten and I like writing about other stuff too. It is my therapy.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a package holiday.

The beach bums

When I was on a tour in SE Asia, we stopped a few nights at Langkawi. The resort I stayed in was full of long-term travellers and beach bums, who were just like my brother. Because he had lived on a remote island in Thailand for a few years he had a travellers superiority complex. Like the people at Langkawi he viewed tour groups as fake travellers, unlike themselves, the true travellers.

The digital nomads

We are all digital nomads. I can text on the bus and read my email in a cafe. I can work from home or someone else’s home. I can write my blog in Birmingham and Brisbane.

The travellers that describe themselves as digital nomads mostly work in Chang Mai. The package tourist is everything they wish not to be associated with and don’t we know it.

Travellers sleep on the floor/dorms

When I reluctantly let my brother stay in my home for a couple of nights he refused the bed. He slept on the floor and made a big thing about it (saved me washing sheets). He moaned about how unhygienic western toilets were preferring to squat and wash rather than to sit and wipe.

He sneered at every aspect of my life. My kids (too much of a drag, man) my house (still wanted to stay there) and like those languishing in Langkawi, thought westerners who chose to go to work and pay taxes were somehow inferior to him. My package holidays were nothing like what he did (drug dealing and cadging cash off the mothership) he was cool and I was not because he travelled and I did not.

The Carry On Brigade

Then there are the travellers who have lived on the road for six years with backpacks that they carry on to planes. Like carry on is the only way to travel. Self proclaimed digital nomads that never check their bags. They boast that they only carry seven days of clothes, yet manage to pack in the ipad/applewatch/macbook air and a mirror camera whatever that is. They write e-books about it and feign disdain at people who for whatever reason book a package holiday.

Sexy travellers

You will see this same group of bloggers featured in the top 10 sexy travellers lists (no one likes an old frumpy traveller do they?) selling online courses to enable you to have a six figure income on the road. If I were making a six figure income on the road I would upgrade to first class travel and check in my luggage and not work out of a café in Chiang Mai.

Not all of us can carry on

The type of people who respond with ‘oh we never go on packages’ when I mention on their Facebook Page that there is no way I could travel from Birmingham airport with carry on only.  It always gets weighed and the limit is 5kg, so no I can’t, package holiday or otherwise.

I have travelled with carry on only. Twice from the UK, both times with Easyjet out of Gatwick. Once they insisted that a tiny sling purse counted as a second item of hand luggage and I had to put that in my bag. Crazy, but rules are rules. #jobsworth .

*update

In Australia last year (August and September 2016) we travelled carry only on domestic flights to Tasmania/Darwin/Alice. Checked in online and hoped we were not stopped at the gate. I am more pro carry on now. Also had to dump 11kg of clothes in Melbourne as I overpacked for the 4 month trip.

Not a travelling snob

While I go on package holidays I rarely have anything in common with most of the passengers on my plane. Particularly those with names on their t-shirts who clink on all the duty-free they can and buy perfume and makeup in the sky, I don’t really get them at all.

I genuinely hope that they are not in my hotel. I do. That is not me being a snob, it is me being me. I would not want to spend a week with a bunch of saga louts nor a bunch of toffs who snort coke. It is not who I am. I do like meeting new like minded people and as such have made friends with ambulance drivers, tube drivers and someone big at Weta on my travels. I am interested in people but not ready to fill my life with buckets of booze and karaoke. Except for that one time in Krabi. We don’t talk about that.

When I go to Turkey the ‘I have my name on my t shirt in case I forget who I am in Bar Street’ brigade get on the big packed bus to Marmaris, while I and my family are the only ones on the minibus to Dalyan. Phew. Dickhead Dave, Saucy Sue and Peter the Plonker who had beer for breakfast at the airport pub may visit Dalyan to wallow in the mud for the day at some point, usually as part of a transfer deal with the tour company, but that is it.

I get my Dalyan with the locals and the Dutch who have made it their second home. I watch the sleeping Dalyan Dogs and live like a local.

Husky on Ice

I go have a beer with Fatih, say hi to his mom Rose (one of the best cooks in Dalyan) and Aycut and his jeep, that frequently breaks down, gets our business every time. When he gives lift to random strangers and pops to see his mom when taking us on a trip, that is a bonus. The rep for my hotel invited us to his family home. The owners of Metin, the family run hotel we stay at, entrusted me with their daughters passport renewal forms. That is how we do package.

What we don’t do is lie on a sunbed, work on our tan, eat English breakfasts, drink Carlsberg and stay in the hotel complex. We catch buses and go for long walks. We get lost in thunderstorms, narrowly avoid being struck by lightning, get woken by earthquakes and run the bar for Fatih when he joins in the water polo match. And yes some days we may swim and sleep because we can. Because we are on holiday.

In Malta we got the cheapest hotel and were out all day exploring by bus. We went there to sus out whether we would want to live there. We don’t. Another package because it suited us at the time.

Our first All Inclusive was in Marrakech, which we loved. Our second in Tunisia, we hated. Before that it was usually self catered to keep the costs down and meant that I didn’t have to dress for dinner.

And that is the point. We do what we want to do. If Carlsberg and chips is your thing, good for you, enjoy. Just don’t call me a snob for choosing not to.

If sitting in a cafe as a nomadic blogger in Chiang Mai is your thing, great. Go write that book about how you travel with only one pair of knickers and flip flops. I won’t buy it.

None of us are superior to anyone, tourist or traveller or staycation lover. No, not at all. It was a digital nomad, What’s Dave Doing,  who gave me the best advice when I was planning my first big trip. Supportive and informative. He is still travelling (slowly now) and I am pretty sure he checks his bags. Dave goes home and sees his family and likes western toilets and comfortable beds, but will sleep on the floor if he has to.

Sorrento here we come

Next week Phil and I are off to Sorrento for a week. I went to Thomson Holidays, after some research on the interwebs, and booked a package holiday.

Yes I could have booked it online. I didn’t because there is only one travel agent on my high street now. Use it or lose it, be it butcher, baker or holiday maker. The staff there are lovely, remember my holiday disasters and know why I don’t do cruises.

Sorrento is a holiday. A much needed holiday after a downsizing house move, a bereavement and every other weekend visits to a hospitalised terminally ill mom/mother in law.

And I will not be taking carry on only. I am packing a posh frock, and some real shoes. I will take sandals and linen tops and trousers and jeans and shoes and as the weather is warm in the day and cool at night, some scarves and a cardie. I may even pack my trusty kagool.

Housesitting in Melbourne

In a few months we are off to Melbourne to house sit, travel in Australia a bit and then after three months there, we go to New Zealand for a month. I sketched out a plan on the back on an envelope, went to STA, and now flights are booked and not much else. I have no idea how we get from Sydney to Brisbane yet. We will work it out. That to me is travelling, a mix of part planning and part seeing what happens.

Packing light

This was my packing for Greece in 2014. A seven day unpackaged holiday, where we flew to Crete,  took a night ferry to Piraeus,  had a day in Athens and then cruised to Santorini for a couple of nights. All the others dragged their huge suitcases to their hotel and stayed in one place. At the airport on the way home I asked some of them if they had been to Knossos. They asked me what Knossos was. #sigh

I pack light. This wheeled backpack from Ikea is just over the measurements for hand luggage on most domestic flights from the UK. And while we travelled light, it was over 5kg.

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Package versus DIY

Before booking the Sorrento package, as an experiment, I checked out skyscanner and various booking websites to see if I could organise a break cheaper than the package. I couldn’t. I could get cheap flights and if I had wanted to backpack in hostels, I probably could have just beaten the prices. Room only in modest hotels were around £80 per night. I could have got a 7 night all inclusive package for £600 if we had been able to go this week. We couldn’t due to work and family commitments. For less than that we have 7 nights half board and, as Sorrento is renowned for being expensive, that is good enough for me.

Spend my tourist dollar in the community

When we go to Sorrento are we going to lounge around the pool? Probably not. We will catch the train to Naples and find the pizza James Martin raves about. We may take a water taxi to Capri and explore the island. Visit Pompeii and Herculaneum at the very least. We will use public transport where we can and maybe take a trip to a farm and make pizza. The food walking tour looks fun too. I like tours, I like meeting like minded people and sharing the experience. Phil and I also like going off on our own and exploring.

What is important to me is making sure some of my tourist dollar is spent locally. Booking a package and eating only in the hotel, it isn’t. If I am AI and never leave the complex, only RIU and TUI make any cash. In most cases Thomson and Thomas Cook have bed blocked the hotel for a knock down price and the staff are paid the minimum wage.

In Malta we ate in a family run pizzeria and bought pastizzi from the pie shop. We used local buses and put our money into the economy.

This was almost impossible to do in Tunisia and boy did it need the tourist buck. Even our taxi driver worried for us when he took us to Sousse. It was a country in crisis. So sad now that those hotels, the main source of employment, lie empty.

An ex work colleague once moaned to me about her holiday in Kenya, how dirty everything was outside her hotel. She was horrified at how the locals lived and she didn’t want to see that. I explained to her that while tourism may offer the locals employment, the big hotel chains offering AI deals are in effect, stealing the business from the local small traders. And it doesn’t make any difference what the business is, holiday, retail or the coffee shop. Ask yourself why McDonald’s pop up in almost every resort and city now? Why, when in Melbourne, would you choose a Big Mac over the many wonderful burgers this city offers? Think where you spend you money, please. If you spend it with a local independent, the money stays in the community.

I do sometimes steal McDonald’s wifi though. When a bed bug ridden Maltese hotel charges for it.

Find the family business

This is why I seek family run businesses when I can when travelling. At home I choose indies over Costa and the corner shop over Tesco, Meatshack over Maccie Dees. If I stay in an AI or half board I make sure I get out to the local businesses be they cafes or tour companies and use them. For my forthcoming Australia trip I am using Aussie based tour companies and where I can, family run companies such as Melbourne Coastal Touring and West Oz Active.

Travelling with grannies and children

When the children were young, we almost always booked package holidays. It was easy, my children learned to swim in the sun, made holiday friends, and I had peace of mind. Both Phil and I had stressful jobs and all we wanted to do then was flop. We did once take our then 3-year-old daughter island hopping in Greece, with 50 something granny aka Travelling Sylvia leading the way.

Santorini post card

We found accommodation as we got off the boat. The owners held photos of their rooms for rent and took us there on the back of mopeds. Of course now we use booking apps but I still see rooms for rent signs in Greece.

Staycations can cost more than a package

I also have unpackaged holidays in the UK, using small independent Bed and Breakfast accommodation. When our Nile trip was cancelled in 2011 we took a tour around Wales and stayed in some excellent rooms. It cost nearly as much as the Nile cruise though, with food and petrol on top of the £80 or so a night accommodation.

And that is why package holidays are popular, they are mostly affordable. That is what many people want. If they have busy lives and only two weeks off to have a break, most people will probably choose what is generally a safe and predictable option for a holiday. Eat, drink, relax. And so do I, sometimes.

Yet now I have travelled more I choose packages that will offer me the adventure and independence I prefer.

We chose Sorrento because we have never been before, it offers a variety of things to see and do and because we needed a break. It was cheaper than 7 nights B&B or hiring a camper in England and I am saving my dosh for our Antipodean adventures.

The point of this post is not to praise package holidays, nor denigrate people who take them. I have friends who for environmental reasons won’t fly. My carbon footprint with three long haul flights in the past 5 years is huge. I do my best to balance this with using public transport and walking as much as possible. I don’t waste food. I turn off lights and use environmentally friendly products. I am not perfect nor strive to be.

Love them or hate them

Package holidays are like Marmite, love or hate them I suppose. But don’t think you are superior if you call yourself a traveller not a tourist. Because I will see you at Pompeii and at Knossos, at Hadrian’s Wall and on a beach in Krabi. That is what people who are interested in the world do, tourists and travellers.

I am a traveller, a tourist, a holiday maker who wants to see the world, feel the sun on her skin, taste new food, discover new places and people and return to places I love. Package holidays have made the world accessible to people who would never had left the comfort of their own back yard otherwise. Who knows, one day they may push past their comfort zone and go further, go independently and go travel. Or they may just sit by the pool and work on their tan, because that is what makes them happy. Who am I to judge?

So don’t judge me. I like package holidays. Sometimes.