Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Yarra Yarra Hey!

I'm sitting with Bryce in the Qantas lounge at Melbourne, waiting for our flight to Brisbane, in QueensLAND. Remember my project to go to all the states/countries that end in -land in English? Well, that's part of why I'm here, all the way down in Australia.

This morning we headed up to the Yarra Valley for a scenic drive and some wine tasting. Both were achieved, to the point where I had to say "no more" at lunch time. On the way up, we stopped in at Domaine Chandon. We tasted two very nice sparkling wines, and a variety of reds and whites. Their Brut méthode champagnoise was quite tasty.

We continued to the Yarra Valley visitor's center in Healesville, where a very helpful lady pulled out a map and marked it up with suggestions as to where we should go. Our first winery was RiverStone, in Coldstream. We tried a variety of reds, but what really stood out for me was a 10 year old Tokay that they made at another winery further south. I'm developing a fascination for sweet dessert wines, and this one really knocked my socks off. It was sweet without being cloying, and had the most wonderful toasted coconut finish that kicked in definitely after swallowing. I really enjoyed that it did that, so I picked up a bottle to bring back to California. The winery building and land at RiverStone were really lovely:

Next stop was Yering Station, which bills itself as Australia's oldest winery -- even though there was a good space of time when the vines were ripped up and the land was used for various agricultural purposes, including stock grazing. The place seemed rather large and full of tourists, so I was a bit worried that it would be sort of a Gallo-type place. However, once we got into the tasting room, we were not disappointed. They had a very long tasting list, which included a really tasty nebbiolo that has given me a really great opinion of that variety. They also had an interesting "M.S.R" blended white made up of 67% Marsanne, 25% Viognier, and 8% Roussane. Bryce ordered a mixed case of this wine, plus some Sangiovese and Shiraz. I was hoping it all would be delivered before I left Brisbane so I could sample a bit more, but alas that was not the case. As for myself, I snapped up yet another sweet wine -- this one a fortified Shiraz. It was really delicious, not quite a tawny port, but not exactly a late-harvest type sweet wine either. I'm curious to learn more about these types of wines, as knowledge of and consumption of them does not seem to be very widespread in the US. I will have to do some research -- including tasting trips -- after I get home.

We were getting hungry, and so decided to stop at the Balgownie Estate. This was a large facility, with a hotel, spa, and conference center attached. We wanted lunch, so we decided to taste wine first to determine what we would drink with our meal. The gentleman helping us taste was quite gregarious, and we sipped our way through some Pinot Noirs, including the proprietor's reserve which was quite yummy. The dining room and menu at the Estate were lovely, but unfortunately we did not have a reservation and so were turned away. Not to be deterred, we headed to another winery that had been suggested, only to find a sign on the door saying that the restaurant was entirely booked for lunch that day. We backtracked a bit, and stopped at the café at Yarrawood. I ordered some pasta with grilled chicken and basil cream sauce, and drank it with something...at this point I can't remember. At that point I probably couldn't have remembered either. I had tasted/drank a lot of wine that morning, so after we finished eating I turned to Bryce and said "No more."

The afternoon and evening were consumed by wending our way back to Melbourne and then flying on to Brisbane.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro

Bryce and I headed west along the Great Ocean Road, going toward Warrnambool. The first part of the road leaving Port Campbell followed the ocean cliffs, where there were a series of spectacular rock formations.

Then the road turned inland. I was fiddling with the camera when Bryce announced that he had just seen a kangaroo sitting by the side of the road. This totally bummed me out, as I really wanted to see some native Australian wildlife in their native Australian habitats. As we continued west, Bryce saw a country lane turn-off and said "let's go here!" so we randomly started down the narrow drive. All of a sudden we passed something marsupial in the grass! I was so excited, we turned around and I saw what turned out to be a wallaby hopping across the road. It sat in the grass and stared at us for a bit.

We continued onward to Warranmbool, the road dipping and rising in soft rolling hills. A few kilometers outside of town Bryce saw a dome with a cross on top and remarked with a bit of surprise that he was seeing a Russian Orthodox Church in the dstance. As we got closer, we encountered this structure, visible across hill and dale for many a kilometer:

Obviously that silver ball is not a Russian Orthodox Church. We navigated closer and saw that it was located atop a trouser factory. But why? And especially why the cross? As we drove around town, just looking to see what was there, it seemed to us that there was an inordinate number of churches. There seemed to be a dozen steeples in the distance, a church on nearly every corner. Had we stumbled into some kind of hotbed of Australian religious expression? And why when we cruised by the Temperance Hall was it closed?

Some more random wandering brought us to a beautiful ANZAC memorial. Pretty much every town in Australia has one, honoring and remembering the forces who fought and fell at Gallipoli in World War I (see the film, it is amazing and heartbreaking).

This is where stuff started getting strange. The memorial was in the middle of a roundabout, and we noticed a bright yellow flower power van going around and around while the driver ground the gears pretty seriously. A few moments of observation revealed that the youth of Warranmbool appear to cruise the streets for fun and entertainment. After making some comments about disaffected youth, we hopped back in the car to search for dinner. Along the way we encountered the yellow van again, this time receiving roadside assistance from a tall young guy (it seems all Aussie guys are tall).

From there we decided that Mexican food was our best bet, so we stopped inside Taco Bill and discovered that it is a chain, with franchise opportunities available all over Australia. Apparently Mexican food is kind of new and exotic in the Australian countryside, because the place mats at Taco Bill included handy pronunciation guides to the various dishes. You know that thing made up of corn chips, melted cheese, salsa, beans, guac etc? Yep, that's right, NAR-choes. And you can wash them down with a liqueur-flavored margarita -- they were offered some of the flavors you'd expect, and then some exotics like Sambuca or creme de menthe. Creme de menthe and tequila, it boggles my mind. I had a passionfruit margarita, which was quite delicious with actual fresh passionfruit puree in it.

After dinner we started the drive back to Port Campbell. At this point the cross on top of the silver ball was lit up, and it kind of floated like a holy UFO on the outskirts of town. The drive back through the dark countryside on a moonless night, roads lined with gum (eucalyptus) trees and the ever-present danger of a 'roo hopping out of the woods and wrecking our car (worse than hitting a deer), was like something out of a gothic horror movie.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Off into the Victorian Countryside

We left Melbourne about 2pm, heading west and south toward Port Campbell, which would be our overnight stop and jumping-off point for driving the Great Ocean Road back to Melbourne. This is considered one of the most spectacular drives in Australia, winding along limestone cliffs and sandy beaches.

Our outbound trip was inland, through dairy cow and sheep country. It was very bucolic, with farm after farm, many smelling of fresh-cut hay. We stopped in the metropolis of Colac (population 11,000) for "Australia's Number One Pizza." This was stated as being in terms of "price and value," but based on the taste of the pizza, I'm not really sure what it meant.

We arrived in Port Campbell, a very small town with a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. After checking into the Loch Ard Motor Inn, we had a cup of tea and hit the road again, heading west.

Cricket 101

This morning I took part in a long-standing Melbourne tradition, attending the Boxing Day Test Match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I'll understand if you are confused. After all, Boxing Day was two days ago, and what the hell is cricket anyway?

Don't ask me where and how cricket started. I heard it was invented by crazy Englishmen who spent too much time in the noonday sun in India drinking gin and tonics, but apparently cricket is older than that. Here are some basics.

There are two teams. One team is in the field, the other is batting. The field is a big grassy oval, with a tan dirt rectangle in the middle. This rectangle is called the pitch, and is where pretty much everything happens. At each end of the pitch stands three thigh-high wooden stakes pounded into the ground close to each other. This is the wicket. A batter stands at each end of the pitch, in front of the wicket, so that two batters from the same team are up at the same time. On the defending team (or attacking, depending on how you look at it, since the bowler can look pretty darn violent when he runs down the pitch), the bowler stands off at one end of the pitch and the rest of his teammates fan out in various locations on the field.

There is no foul territory, the entire oval is in play, so fielders can be behind either batter, on either long side of the pitch, spread out, clustered together, and so on. Play starts by the bowler running into the pitch, hurling the ball before his foot crosses a certain white line. The batter being aimed at does his best to hit the ball, which can be traveling at speeds exceeding 145kmph.

The basic idea for the fielders is to catch the ball and/or throw it in to the wicket keeper (a fielder who stands right by a wicket) so that the batter can be caught out or tagged out. There are rules about how to catch it but they've escaped me now. If the batter gets a decent hit, he starts running down the pitch toward the other wicket, and the batter at that wicket runs in the opposite direction, so the two batters in effect exchange places during the scoring of one run. When the batter has a good hit, the batters can run down, tag their "crease" (their batting zone), and then run back to their original locations. In this case, two runs are scored. Sometimes, on a really flubbed fielding play, three runs can be scored. There are also rules where umpires automatically give credit for four or more runs.

Now we come to the part about scores. This is where things get murky for North Americans who are used to baseball. If you've ever watched BBC World News, you'll hear cricket scores reported something like this:
In the third day of the International Test Match at Melbourne, Australia has 347 runs in the first inning, and South Africa is 8 for 249. Play will continue tomorrow.

A "proper" cricket match, the best of the best, are the Test Matches. Why are they called this? Who knows. Probably because it's test of strength and skill to play cricket for six hours a day for five days. An inning lasts until 10 players are out. In the above example, saying South Africa is 8 for 249 means that 8 players are out, and those 8 scored a total of 249 runs while they were playing. South Africa still has two more batters, which means they could score anywhere between another zero (highly unlikely) and 50 or so (much more likely) before the 10th man goes out and the inning is over.

When Grant, Bryce, and I joined the Boxing Day Test Match already in progress, the game was still in the first inning and the score was something along the lines of what I gave in the example above. Game play is further divided into "overs" (a series of six good bowls), and then there are mandatory breaks. After one hour of play at the MCG, a giant bottle of Gatorade was wheeled onto the the oval and all the players and officials were given something to drink. After the second hour of play, everyone stopped for a 40-minute lunch break. That is when we headed out. It was interesting but I couldn't see staying for the full six hours of play on my first attempt, plus Bryce and I wanted to hit the Great Ocean Road.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Nice Little Afternoon Drive

Bryce and I hopped in the car and headed south from Melbourne, following the beaches along Mornington Peninsula about 100km to its tip. Parts of the drive were reminiscent of the Jersey Shore, parts had a sort of Malibu flavor, and the last two towns -- Sorrento and Portsea -- were definitely very Hamptons.

Along the way we stopped for a walk on a municipal pier, and I stuck my feet in the water. I figured dipping into Port Phillip Bay was close enough to count toward putting my feet in the Great Southern Ocean. At this point only the Arctic is left on my list, unless I start adding things like the Adriatic, Black, Caspian, and Baltic seas.

We parked at the end of the road in Portsea, in a neighborhood of very nice houses with modern architecture, tennis courts, and swimming pools, and went for a brief smoke (Bryce) and a walk. Aside from seeing magpies and hearing a kookaburra, we viewed Preppius Australus, the Australian preppie. Like their American counterparts, they wear Topsiders, sweaters looped around their shoulders, walk sporting dogs, drive Land Rovers, and tend to look askance at "those people," which includes tourists, middle-class urbanites who don't belong to the country club, and foreigners. We're all three, so we got quite a glance.

After having a good chuckle about Biff and Muffy, we backtracked to Sorrento where we stopped at Spargos. I had been craving steak, so had a lovely ribeye and yet another glass of Shiraz. Mmmmm. This one was Mr. Ribbs "The Gaffer," a very very odd name for yet another McLaren Vale wine. That's three in a row, I need to try something from another area!

A Day in Downtown Melbourne

Today I started in on the actual hardcore touristic stuff. Bryce and I took the tram down to the central district of Melbourne, and walked around the old "Laneways." This is a series of narrow streets and arcades (passageways cut through buildings) in the center of downtown. They're full of cute stores, cafes', and art galleries, but the truth is that I think they sounded better on paper. We walked around for a couple of hours, and although we had some great coffee and visited a nice wine shop, I can't say I was particularly wowed by the architecture or the people. We passed a couple of nice looking art galleries that were unfortunately closed for the Christmas Holiday, but looking in the windows did whet my appetite for viewing more native Australian art in the future. One of the most interesting features of the Laneways is the graffiti art. It's actually protected as an art form in certain locations, I took a picture of my favorite mural.

On the advice of another Bryce, an Australian transplanted to San Francisco, I stopped at gourmet chocolatier Haigh's. I picked up a small "dark connoisseurs selection" and am impressed. The flavors are very clear and fruity, and the chocolate is not too sweet. So far I've sampled a caramel, and pieces filled with mint creme, espresso creme, and bits of dried apricot. I'm liking these enough that I might just haul a box back to the US on the plane.

We haven't sampled the wine we picked up at Vintage Cellars yet, but the person who I asked for advice was super enthusiastic about this Shiraz. We'll probably drink it this evening :)

After our tramp through the Laneways, including a nice simple lunch at a fish and chips place where I had grilled sea bass (nicely done with herbs) and a salad, we went to the Melbourne Aquarium. I love aquariums, and this one included an exhibit of King penguins from the Antarctic, weird creatures like the highly dangerous Poison Dart Frog, and a huge marine tank with massive rays, schooling tuna, and some mid-sized sharks.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Two Towers

For anyone wondering: the contents of my bag arrived unscathed. Grant is now enjoying the tequila.

My friend Bryce, originally from San Francisco and now living in Brisbane (Australia, not California), arrived this afternoon. I met him at our hotel, the Urban St. Kilda in St. Kilda (of course). St. Kilda is a sort of arty/hippy/beachy/touristy/loungy neighborhood across the bay from the central business district of Melbourne. The architecture is a mix of Victorian cottages, 1960's style boxy brick buildings, and 2000's style modern curvilinear styles. We walked along the esplanade to St. Kilda pier, a very long construction that juts out to a seawall inhabited by fairy penguins (did not see any) and swans (saw a big black one).

Along the beach in St. Kilda are old public "conveniences" (bathrooms), bath houses (to serve beach goers), and a lovely clock tower.

After our walk we stopped at a wine bar/tapas place called Barcelona, where we drank a nice bottle of Australian Shiraz. It was Pertaringa, and was a 2006 McLaren Vale "Undercover" Shiraz. I have no idea what that means, but it did taste quite delicious. The vines are over fifty years old, and grow on their own rootstock.

I've done nothing but eat and sleep for the past three days, but it has been delightful. Tomorrow should bring some actual sight seeing.

Oh yeah, about the two towers...when I arrived in Melbourne yesterday one of the first buildings I noticed as we were driving in from the airport was the modern tower shown here. I remarked that at the angle I was looking from, it was awfully reminiscent of Barad-Dûr from The Lord of the Rings. Grant laughed, apparently this parallel is often drawn. At certain times of the day the gold square on the top reflects a lot of sunlight -- all it needs is a big eye. Unfortunately the picture here is too straight-on, so you don't get the best effect, but coming in from the airport the side towers aren't as noticeable and the tower appears much more curvy and narrower at the top.

Boxing Day, Aussie Style

Had a nice sleep and seem to have awoken on Melbourne time. Nik wandered into the living room at 7:45am to fire up the Wii, and we played through a series of Wii Fit, Rabbid, and painting blob games. I'm really getting fond of the Wii Fit, there are all these fascinating balance games. My favorites so far are ski jumping (you stand on the board, rush down the ski jump, then straighten your knees to jump) and this one where you move a "table" around to drop a marble through a hole. I think I need to get one of these when I get home. The Wii is very cute and friendly and I appreciate that the games don't involve large amounts of blood and killing. Although shooting something with a ray gun can be fun.

Kitt made an awesome breakfast of buttermilk pancakes, tropical fruit salad, and Grand Mariner sauce. We're now sitting around watching the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, drinking champagne, and otherwise digesting -- so that we can have lunch later!

The baggage service just called and my bag has arrived in Melbourne and cleared customs. It's now on a van headed my way, and should arrive within the next five hours. They didn't mention if it reeked of tequila or not!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Flying Cubicle

Due to the interaction of crossing the International Date Line from East to West combined with an overnight flight from the US to Australia, I have no Christmas Eve. I depart Los Angeles on the 23rd, and arrive in Sydney on the morning of the 25th. A whole day, gone, just like that. (I'll make it up on the return trip, of course.)

The flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, once I calmed down from all the excitement of wondering what was going to happen to me, was boring. Nice dinner (herbed chicken in some kind of apricot chutney sauce, with cous cous and sauteed spinach), several glasses of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and a couple of movies later ("Get Smart," "Bottle Shock") and it's time for bed. I recline the seat to its full laid-out flat position, and curled up under a blanket for a few hours. It turns out I slept off and on for about eight hours, which is pretty amazing, but that's the major benefit of traveling in a lay-flat seat. The plane from LAX to SYD is a newly-refurbished 747, with the vaunted new United First Suite.

It's like a cubicle in the sky. Everything is grey and plastic, with nondescript indoor-outdoor type carpeting. The overhead storage bins are a weird shape so people struggled with their carry-on bags, and there is very little storage in the seats themselves. Except for the large video screen and the actual US-style 110v plug, it's not any better than the old First Class product that United offers. In fact, I think the seats might be a bit narrower in this new configuration. Still, it's better than having to sit semi-upright for 13 1/2 hours, so I can't complain too much.

We land and I'm the first person off the plane. Everyone is very cheerful and wishes "Merry Christmas" to each other. I head through immigration (a snap) and on to baggage claim. I'm pretty sure my bags aren't going to show, and sure enough they don't. The baggage services people take my information and tell me that my luggage will be sent to Melbourne tonight, and that I should get it tomorrow. Domestic connections to Qantas are straightforward, and soon enough I am in Terminal 3 waiting to board my connecting flight.

Wonder of wonders, there are open shops in the terminal, and I pick up a cute pair of dark blue cargo pants and two nice t-shirts from the designed-in-Australia brand store Witchery. I'm ecstatic to so easily find pants that fit: usually anything that fits my butt is way too large in the waist. I guess this particular Australian company cuts their clothes for actual human women rather than fashionable stick figures.

I arrive in Melbourne and see my friend Grant at the gate. Huge hugs ensue, he picks me up and spins me around and my shoes come off. The weather is gorgeous, sunny, clear, pleasantly warm but not humid. I'm so excited to be here.

Grant spends the car ride to his home in St. Kilda explaining the basics of cricket. I swear it's one of the weirdest games ever, even more bizarre and pointless than American-style football. I draw a few parallels to American baseball, and sort of get the idea of how cricket works. I'll hopefully attend part of a test match later in the week: it's the big Australia versus South Africa game.

Grant's partner Kitt made the most amazing meal: a terrine of minced chicken and pork, brandy, garlic, thyme, cranberries and pistachios wrapped in pancetta; a potato salad with creme fraiche and two kinds of mustard; salad of fresh greens with figs, chicken, and buffalo mozzarella; and another salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, and goat cheese with a balsamic vinegarette. This repast is paired with a sparkling Shiraz -- utterly delicious.

Nykolai, Grant's son, received a Wii Fit, and is now demonstrating all kinds of crazy games. He's playing one now that involves psychopathic French rabbits racing dragster tractors around a farm. I want to try the ski jumping game later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

K.A.O.S. and C.O.N.T.R.O.L

It started innocently enough: 3:36pm flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a 10:25pm connection to Melbourne. United had originally wanted to book me on the 7:10pm flight from San Francisco, but SFO being what it is, I asked them to put me on an earlier flight.

I checked in at SFO only to find that my regularly scheduled plane had not only been downgraded to a TED flight, but that the plane was going to be a little late. There were all sorts of delays of people and equipment due to snow in the Pacific Northwest and bad weather elsewhere in the US. Two crew-related flight delays later (the plane was there, but no one to fly it) we finally board for a 5:30pm departure. I find someone sitting in my seat and am concerned that with all the chaos that my seat was double-assigned, but it turns out that it was just someone sitting in the wrong place. Some lady whines to the flight attendant that "there's going to be an insurrection" because we're so late. The attendant asks if the lady would like to get off the plane, and the lady says no, she just wants to get going. The attendant replies that is exactly what she wants too. We all do.

We start to head out to the runway, but not long after the plane circles around back to the gate. It seems there was a brake-related mechanical problem, so they offload everyone and send us to another plane, now scheduled for a 7:30pm departure.

There's still plenty of time for me to get to LAX, so I'm not concerned, until I get the message that my Melbourne flight has been delayed by 12 hours. I didn't want to end up stuck in LA overnight, so I call United to find out what my options are and if I'll be given a hotel room there. The agent tells me that I've been rebooked via Sydney, so I think everything is okay, and head to the new gate. I decide to call United to get all my new flight times, and the agent tells me that no, I'm not rebooked via Sydney, so she tries to do it and can't get the change accepted by the system. She guesses it's because I've got checked bags. Not long afterward, I get another message telling me that my flight to Melbourne is completely canceled. I call United again, and they rebook me for the next night, which means I can go home and sleep with my cats.

Rather than just heading out to BART to go home, I stop by the Red Carpet Club to get my new boarding passes. Truth is, I'd feel a lot better about the changes if I had an official document in my hand. While waiting for an agent to help me, I get a phone call from Ruby in the International First Lounge in LAX, wanting to know where I am. I tell her I'm in the San Francisco Domestic Red Carpet Club, and she tells me I'm rebooked via Sydney and to get on my original flight to LA. I tell her the flight is leaving in 6 minutes and besides I'd given up my seat to someone else. She tells me to get down to the gate, that I can still get on the plane. I tell her I'd be on the plane but someone from United already told me they can't send me via Sydney because they couldn't get me a ticket to Melbourne, and I was all set to go tomorrow, but she says no, she has a ticket for me and will meet me at the gate in LA, I should go get on the plane now.

So I run to the gate, and am worried that the door has closed and that I've missed my flight. The gate agents are very busy, and there is a line, but somehow despite the chaos an agent asks me to follow her and I get on the plane. My original seat is available, so off I go. The flight to LA takes off at 8:33pm and lands 47 minutes later, I've never been on one that's gotten down there so fast. I get off the plane and walk to my connection, and as I approach the gate I hear my name being called. Ruby is there with my new boarding pass and a Qantas ticket from Sydney to Melbourne for the next morning, so it's all good.

I'm now settled in my new United First Suite, which consists of a chair pod that reclines to a 6'6" bed. I've got a big (17"?) video screen with on-demand access to dozens of movies, a glass of champagne, and an actual 110v outlet to charge my laptop. Rather than being 24 hours late for Christmas Day in Melbourne, I'm only going to be 3 1/2. Not bad for going half way around the planet.

The only question, of course, is regarding where my luggage is. It got on my flight in San Francisco, but whether it got on the Sydney flight or not is unknown. At worst case it will arrive in Melbourne the morning of the 26th. I've got an extra pair of underwear in my purse, plus some makeup and a toothbrush, so I'll survive. I'd just hate for the bottle of tequila and carton of cigarettes I'm bringing as presents for Grant and Bryce to be lost in the wilds of the United baggage system for weeks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Go to the Land Down Under

It's been a long long time since I've posted. Truth is, I've been busy. Doing what, I don't know, it's not like I have a real job or anything. But I've been running around. First I went to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving with my parents, then I went to Las Vegas to compete in the Holiday Dance Classic. And now I'm preparing for the trip of the year: I'm going to Australia for about two weeks.

Holiday Dance Classic was great, I danced very well, wore a new dress that looked wonderful on me, and even got to see "Phantom of the Opera." "Phantom" was lovely, I was afraid it was going to be very cheesy, but it was really rather lush and romantic. I enjoyed it -- although I did nearly fall asleep at one point. Not because the musical was bad or boring, just because I couldn't keep up any more. I had gone out for cocktails and dinner beforehand at one of Mario Batali's restaurants, and I guess there is only so much fun I can handle at once. I'm trying to get the video up, but am having problems digitizing it. Actually, it digitizes just fine, but when I upload it to YouTube it gets converted into something else and looks awful. This is not something I've had an issue with before, so I'm at a bit of a loss as to what is going on.

I'm leaving for Australia in a couple of days, and have come to the stunning realization that I have no summer clothes. I've been living in San Francisco for nearly 15 years. It rarely gets really hot here, and it rarely gets really cold. I can't shop for anything because it's the dead of winter, either. I'll have to sort this out and figure out what to pack for the trip!