Down Under Delights – and Disappointments

“Be sure to climb the Sydney Bridge.  It’s amazing,” friends advised.  So, on our visit Down Under last November, we did —and are $524 Australian dollars poorer.  (The Australian dollar is about at par with the U.S. dollar.)

Yes, $212 per person for this “once in a lifetime” experience.   Who could afford to do it twice?

Our conclusion: A rip off.  Not that the experience was without thrilling moments.  And, the views are dynamite.  But, think of the gourmet meals that $524 could have purchased.

We joined a group of 12 others for the 3 ½ hour adventure.  The first hour was spent getting attired:  a loose fitting protective body suit with a belt from which a carabiner dangled, a head set, a baseball cap. Then, practice. We had to climb and descend a ladder, attaching and releasing the carabiner to a cable.  For security, climbers are attached to a cable throughout the climb.  We listened to safety briefings, warnings etc.  The adrenalin was in high gear.

At last we were off – a single file behind the guide who kept up a commentary heard on the head set. The first part in the guts of the mammoth steel structure was not too exciting, just lots of steps and long stretches across cat walks.  Once we started climbing outdoors, precariously  on the edge of the bridge,  a strong wind whipped around  us.  We were so high, it seemed as if we could touch the sky, and the water below appeared to be miles and miles away.  It was all  exhilarating with spectacular views in every direction.

We stopped for photos.  But, not with our cameras.  Personal cameras are not permitted – too dangerous.  An official bridge photographer was on the scene.  Each couple or individual was photographed with the appropriate spectacular background. This took time, too much time. There were five of these stops, each with a slightly different background.  And, we usually had to wait for the group ahead to finish before our group moved up to the perfect photo slot.

Plenty of time to ponder the scenery, and to look down. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, at 440 feet from top to water, is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge.  That’s a huge drop, and scary to view. The guide added to the fright factor with tales of those who plunged to their deaths.  Sixteen workers died during construction which was completed in 1932. The sight that amazed me during the climb was a lonely bird in his nest built on steel beams that had to be higher than any tree.

The finale of the “climb of your life” was aggravating.  After we had changed back into our street clothes, we proceeded to a room with pretty young girls sitting behind computer monitors.  Here’s where we could get those photos, we thought.  We were right.  Give your name and your individual photos pop up on the screen. For a mere extra $25.95 per photo, you could purchase a picture souvenir.  We passed, content with the one complimentary group shot.

Others in the group (the elderly gentleman from Chicago, the honeymoon couple, the couple celebrating a birthday…) eagerly parted with the extra cash for the pricey souvenirs.  They all seemed happy with their costly climb.  Perhaps we’re jaded?

After the experience, we headed to a nearby pub for a much needed beer.  We related our disappointment to the bartender.  “I wouldn’t do it.  You can walk across the bridge for free.  It’s not worth it,” he said.  We agree.

While the bridge climb left us somewhat underwhelmed, we were overwhelmed with the Sydney Opera House.  During a guided tour, we learned the fascinating background to this iconic structure. Both inside and out, it seems so ultra modern.  Yet, it was constructed between 1959 and 1973.  Glass for the gigantic windows came from France.  The ceramic tiles on the exterior are from Sweden.  Its exotic shape of undulating sails permits self-cleaning by the rain.  The acoustics in the large auditoriums are such that no microphones are needed….

Danish architect Jorn Utson designed the incredible structure.   Building costs far exceeded original projections.  In 1966 due to a conflict over finances with a new minister of public works, Utson resigned, vowing never to return to Australia.  He died in 2008 without seeing his completed masterpiece, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

Other delights of the Sydney visit included the city’s bustling fish market, a ferry excursion to Manly where we watched surfers – and our reasonable room ($135 per night) with an exceptional harbor view at the Macleay Apartment Hotel (

We found Sydney – actually all of Australia – expensive.  Here we had a mini kitchen so we could save on meal costs.  The hotel location in Potts Point was ideal with both delis and a super market nearby for purchase of take-home, ready-to-eat meals.

Well-traveled friends also advised that we visit the Great Barrier Reef during our sojourn in Australia. Many, many year ago, I took the required course and earned scuba diver certification.  I’ve only been on a few dives, but as the Great Barrier is said to be one of the world’s best diving sites, I had to experience it.

We flew from Sydney to Cairns where we rented a car for a 1 ½ hour drive north to Port Douglas, an inviting seaside town of restaurants, quaint shops – and excursion boats to the Great Barrier Reef.  Husband Bob is not a diver, but he joined the party, 80 tourists, on the dive/snorkel boat.

I was nervous since I had not been diving in so long.  I joined a “beginners” group and once in the water, my confidence returned.  The coral formations were intriguing, even mystifying.  But, they were dull — beige and bland in color.  A far cry from the vivid colors of the postcards.  And, the fish were not as plentiful as the postcards depict.  I did see a gigantic clam, a ray glued to the bottom, some bright yellow fish.    I submerged three different times, but each time returned to the surface a bit disillusioned.

I was not the only one.  Several on board expressed the same feelings.  One diver said there were too many of us.  We scared the fish away.  Later someone said the coral had been killed by El Nino. (According to an article on the web, El Nino bleaches the coral.)   Jakob, the friendly proprietor of our Port Douglas hotel, said you need to get accustomed to the underwater surroundings, to adjust your eyes, and then you will see color.  “All those postcard photos are made with strobe lights,” he explained.

I am still happy I had the chance to dive again, but what really made me happy was a swim in an idyllic pool at the Mossman Gorge in the Daintree National Park not far from Port Douglas.  For me, swimming is right up there after skiing.  This body of clear, cool water with huge granite boulders along the sides, as well as in the middle, surrounded by lush jungle, was a bit of paradise.  The pool is in a section of the Mossman River, touted as  “without crocodiles.”  But, there were lots of birds, including a wild turkey poking among the picnickers along the shore.

We saw more feathered friends at Habitat, a fun place where you can dine in a large enclosed area among birds, small and large and brightly colored,  who fly above, prance around on the ground, squeak, chirp, sing, and screech.  A caretaker walks by and gladly perches a bird on your shoulder.  Habitat also has more wildlife: kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, crocodiles.

We rented bikes for the trip to Habitat, just outside of Port Douglas, and rode back along the beach, which, except for a jogger or two, was deserted, even though it was a hot, sunny day.  Jelly fish, we learned.

The Palm Villas, our home in Port Douglas, was ideal – reasonable, excellent location, lovely pool, helpful proprietor.  We paid about $95 per night for a spacious studio apartment with kitchen and balcony on a quiet street.

In case you’re tempted, more on Sydney Bridge climb at  More on diving excursions in the Great Barrier Reef:

Have you been to Australia, climbed the bridge, been diving at the Great Barrier Reef?  Share your views. Click on “Leave a Reply” after the slideshow below.

If you’d like to read more of my tales and adventures, click on “Email Subscription” at top right of post.    New Zealand’s magnificent Fiordland  coming soon.  And, a new recipe appears with each new post.

Learn about the famous melons of Provence.  Try a tasty melon salad.   See “Melon Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts” under recipes at right.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Meandering around Melbourne

This was the best part of our visit to Australia.  It’s all due to the warm and generous hospitality of our friends Meg and Brendan Downie who took great pains to show us the sights and treat us to excellent meals and superb wines, not to mention comfortable accommodations at their attractive home in Donvale outside the city.

We met Meg and Brendan years ago when we lived in Germany where we were members of the Porsche Club.   I had a Porsche 944 (considered by many not to be a real Porsche), but it was my baby, my pride and joy, which I drove for 17 happy years.  Brendan had both a Porsche 356 and 911.  He still has these, and a 1936 Ford.  Attendance at a Porsche event was a highlight of our visit.

Plus, a spectacular drive through the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, a visit to an animal sanctuary, an aborigine art gallery and more.

During a visit downtown, I had the opportunity to talk to John McGaw, senior business development manager with Destination Melbourne.  “I’ve worked in the tourism and wine industry for years,” he said.  “I’ve lived in Syndey, Adelaide and now Melbourne.  I prefer Melbourne.  It’s such a friendly city.  Everything is easy here…We’re a shopping and dining capital.”    The city has 80 different kinds of ethnic restaurants, he pointed out.

According to John, Melbourne, a city of almost four million, was just voted “the world’s most livable city.”  “It’s as safe a city as you’ll find anywhere,” he boasted.   Tourism is important to the multi-cultural city, with China considered the largest future market, followed by India.  Then there’s Greece.  John said that Melbourne has the second largest population of Greeks after Greece.  “They’ve been coming here for 40 years.”  The city’s Greek Quarter, as well as Chinatown, is fun to visit.  For Vietnamese fare, there’s Victoria Street lined with noodle shops and grocery stores.

The downtown is lively, vibrant, with street entertainers, hucksters, and plenty to admire, including 50 shopping arcades, the oldest, the Black Arcade, dating to 1892.  John recommended we visit an old world Victorian tea shop whose window was filled with luscious pastries.   The place is so popular, we had to stand in line to wait for a seat.

Federation Square is an innovative mix of glass and steel structures with shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars — and the venue for some 2,000 events every year.  Docklands on Victoria Harbor offers more shopping and dining opportunities.  The Queen Victoria Market is food paradise.  Meg and Brendan shop there every Saturday, visiting favorite stands for fruits and veggies, as well as delis and bakeries.

Within just 90 minutes of the city center, stunning scenery awaits.  We made many photo stops on our drive through the Mornington Peninsula. The Yarra Valley, a wine growing region, is also picturesque with wineries where you can stop to taste fine chardonnays, pinot noirs and more.  Our drives took us though areas devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which ravaged southeastern Australia   —— past slope after slope of still barren trees.

Wildlife is a major attraction in Australia. Meg took time from her duties as ward councilor for a visit to friend  Neil Abbott, a jovial farmer with 100 acres where 70 – 80 kangaroos usually hang out.  As luck would have it, the beasts were missing the day we visited.  The day before there had been a major fire drill with helicopters hovering over the area.  The noise drove the kangaroos away, but we did spot one or two during a tour with Neil in his four-wheel drive vehicle  through the hilly terrain.   And, we learned about kangaroos.

“The aborigines used to eat them.  The dingoes (Australian wild dog) used to eat them.  But now they have no natural enemies,” Neil said.  So, they proliferate and become pests, destroying trees and fences.  They sharpen their claws on the tree bark.  “Their claws are longer than your finger,” he explained.   Some people shoot them, but this is an outrage.  “People are up in arms about those who shoot our national emblem,” he said.  He can no longer farm due to the kangaroo population on his land, but he won’t shoot the animals.

“The kangaroos are a wild animal.  They should be in the bush.  It’s cruel to have them in these areas where they are chased by dogs, where they ruin fences, and are a danger to cars and people… I believe there are a lot of accidents, people killed, veering to avoid hitting a kangaroo,” he said.

During our drive through his farm, Neil said he had a surprise for us.  He knew where a wombat lived and would take us there.  He got out and went ahead down a hill.  “Be quiet…he’s here,” he told us.  We crept behind, me with camera ready.  Voila, I focused on a furry brown head.  Wait, something seemed amiss. It did not move. It looked a bit suspicious.  No wonder.  It was a stuffed wombat Neil had buried under leaves – a joke he often plays on naïve visitors.

We saw more wildlife on a visit to the Healesville Sanctuary where demonstrations and lectures on the various critters are scheduled throughout the day.    The Koalas drew big crowds.

Colin McKinnon is another friend Meg took us to visit.  His Mia Mia Gallery features an amazing collection of beautiful aboriginal art.  The gallery is owned by aborigines, and the profits are returned to aborigine communities.  Colin, himself an aboriginal artist, explained the symbolism of many of the intricate and colorful works, and he generously gave me a print which now hangs in our living room, a treasured souvenir of our memorable visit to Melbourne.

More on the Mia Mia Gallery at

More on Melbourne at

More on the Healesville Sanctuary at

For more views of Melbourne and surroundings, watch the following slideshow.  For a taste of  Greece, whose  influence is prominent in  Melbourne, try Meg’s Baklava, recipe in column at right.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.