So long Sydney

(Written and posted on Sunday 12/11/2006, but backdated to the day it happened.)

And so our last day in Sydney dawned. Thankfully the weather had improved immeasurably, and after breakfast we checked-out (more about the total bill later), left our luggage in storage at the hotel (I’d checked — Central Station has no luggage lockers) and caught a train down to Circular Quay.

Circular Quay railway station
Water taxi

We grabbed a handy dandy Zoo Pass (ferry + zoo admission) and along with many other families and/or tourists got on the ferry to Taronga Zoo.

The plan was to ride the “Sky Safari” chairlift up to the top, then walk back down through the zoo. The plan went pear-shaped when they told us the lower part of the zoo is being redeveloped (something major too; it’s opening in 2008), and everyone had to board buses up to the top and enter there. Hokay… But the good news was the chairlift was running, and so once we’d entered, we went on that first, all the way down, then straight back up again, before exploring the zoo on foot.

Taronga Zoo chairliftSea lion getting a dental examination, Taronga Zoo

It’s got plenty to see, and we saw most of it: monkeys (the kids did impersonations that were frighteningly realistic), giraffes, the new Thai elephants in their new enclosure, wombats, snakes… well, all the usual zoo stuff, in fact. One highlight was a sea lion being weighed and given a dental examination — which she seemed more than willing to do, in return for lots of fish.

As we walked around, we mostly managed to avoid the legions of school kids on excursions, who unlike us Victorians, didn’t have the day off.

Most spectacular was an enclosure with mountain goats (of some kind, I don’t recall) positioned so that you were viewing them as if they were roaming a mountain habitat… but the backdrop was the Sydney Opera House, the bridge, and the skyscrapers. Very cool.

Sydney Taronga Zoo

After a bite of lunch we retraced our steps, catching the chairlift back to the ferry, and the ferry back to Circular Quay, then the train back to Museum station to head for the hotel and our bag, with a last minute detour to find a mailbox to send a postcard. It might be my imagination, but central Sydney seems to have less mailboxes than central Melbourne. Or maybe it’s just that in central Melbourne I know where the ones I usually use are located.

After picking up our bags we headed to the airport and checked-in. The auto-checkin computermachine decided that putting us in seats that included a window spot was a higher priority than seating us together. Odd — you’d think the latter was more important, particularly where some of the passengers are known to be children. The human who dealt with our bag said she could move us, and Isaac in particular declared (after being “freaked out” on the flight up) he absolutely did not want a window seat, which amused her somewhat. So we ended up between the two aisles, and all together.

It was nearly 3pm, and we settled down in an airport cafe that had TVs, so we could watch the Melbourne Cup. As the horses lined up, I spontaneously decided I liked Maybe Better — just because of the name. Normally I’d choose a few horses I liked the names of, and put a dollar or two on each one… then lose the lot. This time around I’d had no time to organise that.

As the Cup started the airport seemed to stop moving, and quite a few people gathered around the cafe TVs to watch. Maybe Better came in third, a respectable effort.

Eventually it was time to board, and the flight itself was relatively uneventful. More Incredibles kiddy packs were distributed, and despite leaving a little late, we touched down more-or-less on time in Melbourne. Grabbed our bag off the carousel, caught the Skybus back, and then the train — which we just caught, no thanks to Connex’s SMS timetables advising me incorrectly of the time it left Spencer Street. There were a fair number of drunken racegoers on-board. Anyway, home in time for dinner.

It had been a good break away, if not a cheap one. It’s tempting to think of a short trip like that as being relatively cheap, especially when the flights are subsidised by frequent flyer points, but it’s only when you realise you’re visiting the ATM for the second time in one day and the hotel bill — with all the sundries included — has shot up from the cheap rate you saw on the web that you realise it can be an expensive business.

TicketsAll up, the costs I can recall are:

Flights (on points) taxes and charges $295
Skybus (family return) $30
Sydney airport train (there and back) $41.20
Hotel (3 nights, including most breakfasts) $543
Various meals $31+$10+$30+$21+$43+$11 = $146
Tram museum $31
Monorail $13.50+$22 = $35.50
Powerhouse museum $20
Sydney train fares $8.70+$4.20+$5.80 = $18.70
Sydney bus fares $5.60
Ferry fares $15
Zoo+ferry $73

So a total of $1254, not including some little things I can’t remember/haven’t counted.

Not that I’m complaining, you understand, but it’s something of a surprise that something that started as “Hey, let’s use up some frequent flyer points to have a cheap weekend away” added up to so much moula.

But of course the main thing was that we had a great time, saw some cool things, and really enjoyed ourselves.

Not gone to Gowings – Gowings is gone

(Written and posted on Friday 10/11/2006, but backdated to the day it happened.)

After another buffet breakfast, we set out for a walk around Sydney’s CBD. One of my criteria for hotels was walking distance to plenty of attractions; it avoids a lot of hassle with fares for transport if you just want to wander around.

(It might be worth noting that while Sydney’s public transport fares seem fairly competitive for many individual trips that might be typical for point to point commuters, it’s a very different story for tourists who tend to wander around doing lots of switching between modes. On this I think Melbourne and other cities with multimodal ticketing win hands down.)

We walked up to the Sydney Tower, and I tried to encourage the kids to go up, assuring them that it wouldn’t involve climbing around the outside of it (which is something some brave hardy souls do). I think they were pondering how scary the OzTrek ride would be (it’s also optional, but included in the ticket price) when they decided — at the last minute, at the head of the ticket queue — to bail out and go and do something else.

Watching the grey sky, I pondered doing a little shopping for a rainjacket. The kids have a couple of cheapie ones which were just the ticket for the drizzly weather we were encountering, but my trusty old rainjacket (a little more elaborate, being actually waterproof) had self-destructed several months earlier, with the lining all falling apart. I think I first got it in ’99 for my trip to Europe, so it had a good life.

After wandering around Myer and finding nothing, I remembered the landmark Gowings menswear store nearby from my previous visits to Sydney, and we went to go and find it.

But we couldn’t find it. WTF? They’d been in business for well over a century, yet seemed to have vanished without trace. Turns out that having been in the clothing business since 1868, they moved into investment instead a few years ago, and their famous stores have gone the way of the dodo.

Bloody hell. I guess the phrase “Gone to Gowings” has joined “Faster than a Bondi tram” as a defunct Sydney expression.

On Jeremy’s urging, we went back for another ride on the monorail. This time I bought a day pass; for a family it’s $22 — not cheap, but at least we could hop on and off all day without getting stung for more. It was less crowded this time, and we did a complete loop, then jumped off again for our next task: the park.

On our last visit to Sydney, in 2001 when my sister lived there, we had a little morning birthday party for Isaac in a park near her house. But what sticks in everybody’s mind was that he fell off some play equipment and bumped his head, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Isaac’s goal was to find that park… and (I guess) look around, though preferably not repeat the experience.

I’d checked back on a map. It was St Leonard’s Park, in North Sydney, and I knew which bus we had to catch to get there, though I didn’t know where from. We asked at the bus information kiosk outside the (rather nice) QVB, and the bloke said we’d do better to go to the Wynyard bus terminus, so we walked up there instead.

From there we caught a bus that initially went over the Harbour Bridge (my it’s big) then on to North Sydney and up to the park. Isaac was very disappointed to find the equipment in question had been taken away, but the kids both enjoyed playing on what was left, as I sheltered from the drizzle.

We walked back down Miller Street to find some lunch, eventually settling on sandwiches in a food court. I’ve heard of that bit of North Sydney described as a second CBD, and it really is like that… the sure sign is lots of office workers wandering around at lunchtime on foot, something you just don’t see in the suburbs.

Milsons PointThe bridge

We found the subway entrance to North Sydney Station, and went and caught a train to Circular Quay, with a brief stopoff at Milson’s Point so Jeremy could see if we could get aboard a train newer than the 70s vintage ones we seemed to be continually getting — it also afforded a great view of the bridge — and another at Wynyard to change lines.

From there we headed to the ferries. I spurned the very Melbourne-looking ticket machines to ask a Ferries lady about what ticket I needed to just cruise around for a bit, and we boarded the ferry to Kirribilli. It did a loop around the harbour, and by that point the sun had come out, and we could sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery.

After that we decided to walk from the Quay back up Pitt St back for another ride on the monorail, which we took most of the way around, to the stop closest the hotel. A unanimous vote determined we should go and have a relax in the room and watch some afternoon telly.

By about 5:30 everyone was getting peckish again and we walked up to nearby Darlinghurst to find some dinner, which turned out to be another (cleaner) Italian restaurant. It was spaghetti all round, with me getting the carbonara, and the boys both going for the bolognaise. While Jeremy couldn’t get through his, Isaac finished his completely, which reminds me that he’s getting bigger, and no doubt will soon be eating full-sized adult meals regularly.

Hyde Park

Rather than go straight back to the hotel, we went for a walk in nearby Hyde Park, having a look at the war memorial, as well as some guy trying to do bike stunts. Two fire engines went screaming down Park Street, and we walked up to the very impressive Archibald Fountain (unlike Melbourne’s fountains, it had water; the drought is obviously not so dire in NSW), then we headed back to the hotel.

For once no Simpsons or Futurama on Fox8, but there was Mythbusters on SBS, which made for some fun evening viewing.

Sunday in Sydney

(Written and posted on Thursday 9/11/2006, but backdated to the day it happened.)

It was a pretty good night’s sleep in our small room, and we got showered and dressed and went down to avail ourselves of the hotel breakfast. We all quickly warmed to the idea of helping themselves to all the toast, cereal, scrambled eggs, bacon and so on that our bellies could handle — no doubt a big part of them giving us vouchers for one day was to get us hooked. I enquired about the cost for the remaining days (without vouchers). $16.50 per adult, $7.50 per child. Not cheap, but worth it I think, given you can get fuelled up enough to avoid eating for the rest of the morning, and there’s no hassle with finding somewhere to eat first thing in the morning. So we ended up having breakfast in the hotel on the Monday and Tuesday too.

Train to WaterfallSydney Tramway Museum

We walked down to Central Station and bought tickets to Loftus. I’d decided to indulge my inner gunzel and see Sydney’s tramway museum. We just made the train (every half-hour; not bad, given the distance) and reached Loftus after about 45 minutes. The museum was right next to the station. Just like a ticket machine, the guy at the entrance had no change from a $50 note. But unlike a machine, he said to just go in, he’d find us later.

They had a number of trams out and about… a couple from Sydney, including an archetypal R class, as well as an American PCC (that looked like a 1940s bus), and another Sydney one painted blue for RAAF recruitment. We made sure to ride them all. The museum has a couple of lines; one heading north for a kilometre or two, and another heading southwest for a couple of kilometres to the national park, including across a major road (with a railway-style level crossing, which most, but not all, cars stopped at).

They also have a shop selling memorabilia and books and so on (in an old tram body, natch), and a pretty big collection of trams in a shed, along with a traverser for moving them around. We clambered through various vehicles from different cities and countries. On a Melbourne tram I showed the kids how to change the route number, and how the stop cord used to work. (We all remember it was one ring to request a stop, and two for the conductor to tell the driver to move off, right?)

Daniel and Isaac on board an R class tramDo not spit in the car

The San Francisco PCC tram was interesting. It looked like a 40s American bus (the interior kept reminding me of that famous picture of Rosa Parks), and had the sort of acceleration that made it take off like a rocket.

Isaac changes the route numberHanging out of the R-class tramSan Francisco PCC tram 1014

After a look around the museum’s workshops, we exitted (paying on the way out), got lunch, and then caught the train back into central Sydney. We got off at Town Hall and headed up to the monorail station — another thing on the list of vehicles to ride during our stay. The first train that came went right past, out of service, eliciting a “boooo!” from the waiting crowd. Soon a second arrived and we piled in. It was pretty crowded… moreso than you might expect from a glorified joyride costing $4.50 per person per pop.

It was grey and drizzly by this point, and after going most of the way round, we decided to get off at the Paddy’s Market stop, and go to the Powerhouse Museum — we’ve been there before, but it’s always great. Isaac was once again amused to see the robot that shared his name (misspelt though, with two Ss — I don’t remember if the spelling has changed since last time) and the various exhibits kept us all amused for a couple of hours.

Issac the Powerhouse Museum robotGoulburn Street, Sydney, in the rain

Still raining when we left, and we went to find some dinner. I was becoming conscious of the tendency to drift towards fast food while on holidays, underscored by us having fish and chips (chicken and chips for Isaac), with Jeremy drinking what seemed like his own bodyweight in juice. So after that we found a supermarket and bought some more healthy foods to snack on in the hotel room. I suppose the food thing isn’t as bad as all that, since it’s not the kind of diet I make a habit of indulging in, and we were getting way more walking done than usual.

I had to find an ATM for the second time that day, and suddenly got an inkling that money was draining out of my wallet pretty fast. It was not going to be the budget holiday I had hoped it would be.

Still raining, and getting dark as we headed back to the hotel. At one point I looked up at the Sydney (Centrepoint) Tower, only to see it shrouded in fog. (I tried to take a photo, but it came out all blurry). We got back and watched some more Simpsons and Futurama before bed.

Setting off for Sydney

(Written and posted on Wednesday 8/11/2006, but backdated to the day it happened.)

On Saturday I ran around packing up my big backpack full of stuff. We needed clothes for the four days, plus the usual bathroom supplies, plus a book each to read while bored in airports or in the hotel. I also packed my iPod to listen to after the kids had gone to bed.

We set off a bit before 2pm, walking down to the station. The backpack has the right straps so that the bulk of the weight was on my waist instead of my shoulders, which was something of a relief given how big and heavy the thing was. Isaac carried the joey backpack section.

Got to the station to discover the 2:08pm train was running late. Terrific start to the holiday, but thankfully I had allowed plenty of time to get to the airport (as well as flying Qantas to avoid any Jetstar-type 30 minute “sorry you’ll have to pay another fare because we’re bastards” cutoff).

The train took us to Spencer Street, where we changed onto the Skybus. Sure it’s a premium fare, but in fact $30 for an adult and two kids return (valid for 12 months) is, I think, a pretty good deal (even adding a few extra dollars for the train) given a cab would cost at least $80 from home one way. Also I had in the back of my mind that we should aim to use pre-existing, scheduled transport services; stuff that would have run anyway, perhaps in part to assuage my guilt at missing the Walk Against Warming. And we all needed the exercise (though not necessarily with a hulking great backpack).

As advertised, the bus got us to the airport in 20 minutes, though it was notable that the route included none of the traffic light priority that was touted (or at least heavily implied) by the government when it subsidised the upgrade a few years ago. There seemed to be plenty of people on-board though, which was good to see. (I checked with a bus industry contact, and he said they were still working on it.)

Inspecting the planeCheck-in was quick and easy, and as the luggage conveyor whisked the big bag away (hopefully to be seen again soon), we wandered through the airport to find the gate. Soon we boarded. The kids didn’t have too much trouble working out how to use the seatbelts, and I showed them what all the various buttons did, with a caution not to raise/lower the seat unless necessary, and to go easy with the tray, to avoid bugging the other passengers.

I gave them some gum to chew on, which may have helped a bit with the ears during take-off. The friendly Qantas people gave them an Incredibles activity kit each, and Isaac used the kit’s Magic Slate ™ to write various messages describing how he was enjoying the early stages of the flight. Initially many of them said things like “THIS IS FREAKING ME OUT” and “#$^*?# !!!”. He hadn’t flown in a while, and seemed to spend a lot of time studying the 737′s safety sheet, and as well as avoiding looking out the window.

The flight attendants apologised for the lack of food choice as they gave us bread sticks and sundried tomato dip. I enjoyed it… the kids were a lukewarm on it though. Some turbulence bumped us around a bit, and then we headed in to land.

We picked up our bag (thankfully not re-routed to Morocco) and headed for the airport train. An airport station lady helped me figure out the ticket machine, and happily told us that on Sydney’s Cityrail we didn’t have to pay for the second (or subsequent) child. To this day however I’m still not sure how you’re meant to deal with getting the kids through the turnstiles. Try and send them through both together, or find an attendant? Or can you put the ticket through twice to re-open the gate?

We got off the train at Central (Museum would have been closer, but the train was terminating at Central) and walked up and found the hotel: the Travelodge. After waiting a few minutes in the queue (a bus full of tourists had arrived, and there also seemed to be a lot of Karate tournament competitors around) we booked-in.

The good news was they were giving us a day’s worth of breakfast vouchers for booking online. The bad news was they hadn’t organised the third bed in the room that I’d put in the comments field in the booking, and it would cost another $30 per day. Sigh.

The roomAnd if I still had any doubts that I should have just booked a bigger room, they evaporated when we got in there. It wasn’t tiny, but it sure wasn’t huge. Sigh. Not to worry, we’d be out most of the time.

A quick check revealed the hotel restaurant only served breakfast; they recommended going out to nearby Oxford Street to find dinner. This we did, eventually settling on pizza at an Italian place which was priced slightly more expensively than it looked like it ought to have been, especially given the slight smell of the seats. But no matter, the food was good.

We bought some supplies (a newspaper, postcards, milk to make tea — the hotel room fridge was bare — and some snacks for the next days’ travels) and went back to watch some TV (Fox 8 was included; I think they should rename it the Matt Groening Channel given the number of Simpsons and Futurama).

I tried to do a little reading when the kids went to bed, but the room’s lighting didn’t make it easy, and I was tired, so just decided to go to bed too.

Off to Sydney

I’m off to Sydney today for a few days with the kids, on the trip I booked in July.

Hoping to walk across the harbour bridge, ride the monorail and the ferries, go to Tooronga Zoo, all that good stuff.

Hopefully the flight home won’t be a long saga of delays like the last couple of times.

PS. Tuesday 10pm. Back. Had a good time. Will post in excruciating detail over the next few days, as always.