Monday, January 31, 2011

Day 7: Auckland

Day 7: Auckland

NZ Fact #1: Location: Oceania, islands in the South Pacific Ocean, southeast of Australia

Pictures: In and around Auckland and near our condo, the only painted utility box in Auckland, DB scores another art jewelry store, a salt water pool nearby, our rental car (which today moved from the street to the garage, about 40 feet total), the site of a unique pastry (Rob’s), a ringer from our last trip (Pop Quiz Q #1: name the town), bbq envy, and lastly sail boats dotting the water outside our now wide open glass patio as we eat dinner.

Pop Quiz Q #2: What do E-ville loft and Auckland condo have in common?

Breakfast, lunch and dinner at the condo: cereal and fruit, meat pies with rolls and tomatoes, bbq’d lamb (awesome, dude!) with green beans and rocket salad and a coffee flavored croissant bread pudding muffin (from Rob's), Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris (local wine, gift of Z&G), total of about $40.

The bread pudding muffin now pushes NZ way ahead of Australia in the pastry category.

Weather: in low to mid 70s, breezy at times, clear skies all the live long day.

In the afternoon, we do art, visiting local galleries and a temporary museum show (one of the pics is of the new museum under construction), walking from the condo into and around town. Then, in late afternoon, we catch the “link” line and end up about 20 minutes from the condo, just far enough that we need scoops of Movenpick ice cream to keep us hydrated, $7. Oh, and a local person treated us to the bus, very nice (and unnecessary of her).

We’ve got our new GPS (brought from the US) loaded with NZ settings and the various locations we’ll be visiting on the North Island. Given the names of places, roads, towns, etc., this is the ultimate test of machine and DB’s ability to navigate (THB does not do much navigation, making DB’s competition that much tougher).

And to answer one of the comments: No sighting of the boys in the Flight of the Conchords, one of the better low-key shows ever. We should’ve watched more often to get a handle on the accents in these parts.

And, to answer another of the comments: THB has no idea why he didn’t plan for two solid weeks at this exchange site. There’s a lot to do in NZ, and we can’t just be tied down to paradise such as this condo….even though at dinner there was much discussion as to why not.

Tomorrow: Waiheke Island, pronounced EYE-LAND…don’t ask about Waiheke, THB has no idea.

Day 6: Sydney to Auckland

Day 6: Sydney to Auckland

The last stanza of the Australian National Anthem
hou'd foreign foe e'er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Brittannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean's roll,
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains the let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

and, stanza one of the New Zealand Anthem

God of nations at thy feet
in the bonds of love we meet.
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific's triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.

Pictures: Our exchange site in Auckland, overlooking the harbor, inside and out

Today is a travel day, and the good news is we are leaving Sydney: it is unbelievably hot at 7am. If we had stayed, it might have been a two movie day. We try yet another coffee and pastry spot, and it is actually cooler to sit outside than in (their fridges are blowing hot air into the café proper); one sour cherry muffin, one fig muffin and two large flat whites (large means somewhere around 4 ounces of coffee), $15.

We decide to shuttle to the airport for $28 than repeat the $50 cab ride. We are the first picked up; 50 minutes later and 3 or 4 endless miles or so of looping through downtown (the stop at the massage parlor - TRUE! - appeared to be a mistake, though we can’t be absolutely sure), we finally appear to be heading to the airport without stopping for any more pick-ups, taking surface streets all the way. The driver decides to turn up the a/c after 40 minutes or so, which means that instead of cool air we just get a lot of noise. Of course, domestic terminals are first. I wonder if car sickness can be used as an excuse for early dropoff?

We get let off at the farthest spot possible from our check-in at Pacific Blue. Another stuffy warm terminal with lines that don’t move (Pacific Blue doesn’t have on-line check-in). When we get to the front of the line, the check-in person asks for our return flight receipts: apparently you can’t get into New Zealand without proving you are leaving. Another first! Somewhat ironic that e-tix don’t work for check-in and yet they do for checking out….Hmmmmmmm….

Then we head to immigration and another first: Australia wants you to fill out one of those declaration cards on leaving the country (the form which you always fill out when entering). So the passenger arrival card just needs a minor title adjustment: the passenger departure card and it is ready to go. Turns out that along with not bringing in more than $10k in cash we aren’t allowed to leave with more than that either! No problems, mate…

Lunch on the plane: leftover cheese, fruit, baguette, sushi roll, chocolate, approximately $10 (because all the other $$ amounts have been exact down to the last tuppence).

New Zealand is already different: an efficient customs and immigration system and a cool terminal (it is cooler out, which must help with the terminal a/c). We are met by our house exchangers, Zelda and Graham, we pick up our phone (we bought one, it will work in many other countries), pick up our rental car (not buying a car here, just renting), and head to a Thai place for dinner. Very good: pad thai, roast duck curry, Monteith beer, NZ sauvignon blanc, and Z&G treat, or as they say down under, it is a shout (they shout at us? they shout us up? they shouted us?).

Their condo is lovely, large, with a large view of the Auckland Harbor. It stays light until after 8:30, and we are now another two hours different from Sydney, so we are only 3 hours off California time, and one day ahead.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Day 5: Sydney

Day 5: Sydney

While other nations of the globe
Behold us from afar,
We'll rise to high renown and shine
Like our glorious southern star;
From England, Scotia, Erin's Isle,
Who come our lot to share,
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Pictures: SOH, Dark Crested Cockatoo eating a huge roll, THB revisits the 2000 Olympic Volleyball venue, Manly Beach public art, SOH at sundown from the ferry

Book Review #1: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason, Kindle edition. A series of vignettes retelling (unveiling?) various alternate explanations of the myths of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Fascinating mostly for the well thought out viewpoints behind the actions that drive the story as told by Homer, as well as the way different storytellers might have interpreted the actions and motivations. Almost as if new scripts for key points of the history are being tested out for expansion/revision. Recommended

Book Review #2: The Bullpen Gospels, Dirk Hayhurst, Kindle edition. Another tell-all from a minor leaguer’s point of view of the camaraderie and idiocy of a group of testosterone driven youngsters (or guys acting much younger than their ages) bonding together in the pursuit of making the major leagues, or is it to relief the boredom of months of being together playing a pretty dull sport? Dirk turns out to be a 25 year old non-drinking virgin with a loaded family history and college level intellect, so he alternates between family strife and mental anguish and the strife and anguish involved in trying to succeed at a sport where most wash out before age 25. Sometimes maudlin, overall engaging, makes a bold statement for why all sports teams at every level should hire a full-time psychologist to help the athletes cope (and to distribute more appropriate drugs). Recommended if don’t mind that there isn’t a ton of insider baseball stuff (basically none), that the ending is pure molasses, and you want to know how nice Trevor Hoffman is (now the all-time saves leader).

Up early, right on schedule, and the Opera House is suffering from a total eclipse! Hey, how could an entire World Heritage site disappear? A cruise ship snuck into town last night and is now taking up most of the view from our room. Do we ask for a new room? Call the port authorities and request a new berth? Were all those stylish people we saw last night at Customs House really cruise ship escapees out on the town? Turns out, we just wait and by the time we get back from dinner the cruisers have cruised off. View restored!

Breakfast at another local spot, for pancakes (served practically cold) with youghurt and fruit, hold the ice cream (yes, ice cream) and syrup. With one small cup of coffee and foam: $30. Actually, not bad…how weird is that?

We decide to take the early Sydney Opera House one hour tour (they have a two hour version that goes backstage, which we don’t opt for), starting at 9am. Only six of us show up, and that makes it very easy for the guide to answer all the questions and maneuver us around. See pics of SOH from various odd viewing sites. Not quite as special as the Copenhagen opera building tour, mostly because we went backstage with the Danes, still fascinating for the struggles of building the thing and how good it came out.

We then start plodding through the heat….yes, today is a scorcher with no clouds in sight…and end up at what is the Natural History museum (not its real title), to see the various animals (not live, stuffed or preserved or made up) from these parts. Pretty well displayed, and cool inside. We only have to worry about tripping other the 3 year olds running around.

More strolling at a slow pace to end up at the East Ocean restaurant, a distant cousin of the dim sum place of the same name in Emeryville. Ordering is a bit different also: you pick stuff off the menu, fill in how many you want of an item and whether it is to come with the first course or second. Nice way to make sure all the food doesn’t come at once. We order some things we don’t recognize, a few we do, and overall the quality is pretty consistent with what we get at home. Of course, the prices aren’t: $45 total, with jasmine tea and 6 dishes ordered (only six…OUCH!).

Then another long walk back to the hotel, this time THB makes it into the pool for a refreshing dip.

Off we go to Manly again via the ferry, this time to get off the ferry, walk the ocean side beaches, and have a seafood dinner. Very pleasant, fish and chips, blackened barramundi (white fish of some sort), two glasses of wine, one beer, $75. Ferry back and start getting ready for heading to Auckland tomorrow.

One final note: just outside our hotel, three or four large bats cavort every night, and sure enough there they are when we get back. Strange in an urban setting, and nobody here even notices.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Day 4 - Sydney

Day 4: Sydney
Beneath our radiant southern Cross,
We'll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Pictures: Rendezvous fitness center, A/C sign, Sydney utility box, downtown Metal Lab jewelry store, back to the past: Japanese restroom signs at Tetsuya, and Pear Cider ordered at Custom House bar

Pre-breakfast sauna bath, taken while riding an exerbike in the fitness center. Tomorrow THB will call down and have the staff turn on the A/C 45 minutes before arrival (something tells me that asking DB to head down for a workout an hour before me is not going to be met with eager volunteerism).

Another nearby pastry spot for breakfast, this time we get a pretty bland baguette and a snail with crushed pistachio on top and chocolate (surprise) inside; decent…and two flat whites (looks like decaf espresso and steamed milk), above average, $18. Yes, $18…and that includes a $2 discount for take-away. We are in a very tourist-oriented spot; still this seems an extreme mark-up. Dine on the balcony with fruit from yesterday’s market: below average cherries and a nice plum (peaches not quite ripe yet).

We leave around 10am to wander downtown shopping areas until it is time for the big lunch at Tetsuya’s. The sister to the jewelry store we visited yesterday is in a converted three story building of “some age” and they are on the top floor (see pic), where heat is accumulating already today. There is a sign on the door that says: back in 5 minutes. No idea when the sign went up. Stroll around, come back in 10 minutes, the sign is still up and it is plenty warm. We decide to move on, visiting several other department stores: ahhhhhhh, the food halls are in the basement, just like Japan, and the prices are prettttt-eeeeee pricey. Basically, stuff is 40-100% more than we would pay for comparable items.

We try and track down more galleries, they have moved on (some we knew were gone because we visited them yesterday in their new locations). No success; we do visit another enclosed 3 story building “of some age” that THB remembers from 2000, and the spot where he rested up before heading to volleyball at one of the cafes.

Then the big event of the day: lunch at Tetsuya. We are seated upstairs with 11 of the 12 tables occupied, most with couples, a few with three people. There are several rooms downstairs, they don’t look full. It is very casual, especially for the men: one guy in shorts and t-shirt and flip flops, several others in jeans and casual shirts, nobody in a sports jacket. One table of three guys has their smart phones in their hands the entire time they are not physically eating. Tweeting? Facebook updates? The waiter says it is not that unusual, happens all the time. One woman is taking pictures of every course; others fool with their phones if their partner goes to the restroom. It’s a modern world.

Speaking of restrooms, how about those pictures of the door signage! Try and figure out which is for the women and which one says men all over it…shades of Japan, right here in Sydney.

Now the meal: excellent!! Not quite French Laundry or the better sushi meals we’ve had, as good as or better than most others. The meal:
• Chilled Cucumber Soup with sheep youghurt ice cream
• Sashimi of Kingfish with blackbean and orange
• Marinated NZ Scampi with avocado soup and avruga
• Confit Petuna Ocean Trout with konbu, celery and apple (Tetsuya’s signature dish) and a side salad
• Fillet of Mulloway (fish) with asparagus and Pil Pil
• Grilled Pig’s Tails with West Australian marron (and jambon, unlisted on menu)
• Pancetta wrapped Quail Breast with fresh sprouts and onion (and unlisted, popped rice)
• Slow Braised Beef Rib with smoked garlic and beetroot jus
• Riesling Sorbet with pomelo and Summer Pudding (with strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and bread)
• White Peach with Peach Granita
• Spiced Carrot Cake with cream cheese ice cream and peanuts
• Chai Mochi
• Decaf coffee
• Four glasses of Australian wines: Dry Riesling (excellent), Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz. Riesling the best, chard above average (not too oaky), pinot a bit light, shiraz got better as it breathed
• Total with service (not included, unusual for here): $540

Favorite courses: sashimi, ocean trout, quail breast, spiced carrot cake. If only we could share a meal of this magnitude, even with pretty small portions. We have crossed the Rubicon where a) we could both eat every course and still be fine afterwards and b) where THB could finish every course for DB and not feel the aftereffects! We could see a couple of younger folks where the guy was mopping up for his partner…not us, not anymore.

The weather: starts out sticky, it feels very much post-rain, overcast. Then mid-morning, it isn’t quite as humid, it is very hot in the sun. By late afternoon it is no longer humid, it has cleared up, and breezy. THB decides to go for a dip in the hotel pool: IT IS TOO COLD! How can that be? The pool is in shade, it is cold water, it is windy, and it is no longer appealing to dive in. No more complaining about the heat: if you can’t stand the cold water, get out of the pool.

LB has sent her recently repatriated friend Vicky some film (yes, there are people that still take photos the old-fashioned way…amazing), and Vicky and Wade have come in to the city to make the pickup and take us to a local bar. We head to the Customs House, on the quay, where on the first floor (okay, ground floor here), under the glass floor is a model of Sydney’s downtown. Very impressive, and then we head up to the 5th floor (or is it the 4th? 6th?) where there is a bar and restaurant. The restaurant has a terrific view of the harbor; we can’t face another meal so we settle into the bar where the womenfolk have Pear Cider (Sharon/Craig: see, taste testing everywhere we go! Made of NZ pears and quite refreshing; see pic) and the men have local brews…beers that Wade knows and THB clearly does not. Both good choices! Some Indian snacks: mini-samosas and naan with eggplant dip. Total $60.

Of note: in the bar we can see people coming and going and most if not all are way more stylishly dressed than anything we saw at Tetsuya’s today. Hmmmmmm…

We see some huge flying bats on the way back…back in time to watch a bit of Australian Womens final: quite exciting.

Day 3: Sydney

Day 3: Sydney
When gallant Cook from Albion sail'd,
To trace wide oceans o'er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England's flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
"Brittannia rules the wave!"
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

Pictures: Birds of yesteryear, DB and Jane on the descent, DB and Jane outside Metal Lab, fire exit offence sign, our dinner spot

Wackydoo: Aussie for a bang up job surprisingly well done, or you are enjoying good luck, as when you find a great parking spot quickly and thus you announce your current situation by exclaiming “Wackydoo!”

A good night’s sleep! We’re only 5 hours (and one whole day) off, so adjustment should be easy and seems so to us on our first full day. Up and out before 7 to walk the Harbor Bridge. There are plenty of others, most running across towards downtown wearing backpacks. Must be combining exercise and commuting. It is warm and humid and overcast, which pretty much sums up the weather for the day.

We then encounter the first major disappointment of the trip: we stop for coffee and pastry at a spot just down the street from our hotel, and a) the service is amazing slow, b) the order is screwed up, three times, and c) THE MUFFINS SUCKED (not wackydoo…doodoo), missing key ingredients (you know, like the raspberries in the raspberry muffin), flavorless, and cold as if frozen months (years?) ago and then defrosted just that morning, or maybe not quite defrosted. Oh, and we were undercharged, so we had to fork over an extra $3.50 for the benefit of leaving most of the pastry on the plate. Shocking, just shocking. Total: $17 (comparable prices at Arizmendi: $10).

Jane, a local, is taking us touring today. She was the head of the Australian Crafts Council, and we were connected up through a mutual friend. Wackydoo!! First we visit a gallery that is mostly works of glass, in many shapes and made with different techniques, with a crazy owner, Maureen, who also takes us upstairs to see her house (next door and above the gallery) and personal collection. Thoroughly entertaining, and her dog, Zena, an Egyptian guard dog (well, something like that, guardian of the sphinxes?) even has modeled some of the jewelry.

Next up is a visit to a couple that has been making jewelry together for over 40 years, at their house/studio in Manly (and near where we took the ferry yesterday). Their house is down a long, steep set of steps (see pic) and about 40 feet up from the harbor. Very picturesque, and we get a great overview of their work, the studio, and this time a great Danish pastry (he’s originally from Denmark, she grew up in Australia) and French pressed coffee. We are eating on their deck overlooking the harbor when it starts to drizzle; we quickly move inside while the temperature drops to almost tolerable outside and it feels less humid. Wackydoo!

Back to town where we stop for a lunch of chicken salad, chicken sandwich, small veggie pizza and one soft drink. Very pleasant, we eat inside with the front windows raised such that the front wall his now entirely open, letting in cooling (not cool, cooling) breezes to waft through the casual restaurant. Total $42 and very comparable to US.

We visit a small, hard to find (not for Jane, for us or anyone else that doesn’t know right where it is located) jewelry gallery (see pic of DB and Jane in front) with a nice show featuring an artist now working primarily in glass (our day for glass!) and other pieces. They also have artisan wallets, bags, and eyewear on display. The owner is very informative and discusses how they have two stores, one in a very public spot and this one, and the same customers will buy items only at one of the two spots, even if the same exact piece, because of the location and ability to take their time in the more obscure place (no other customers) vs. feeling more caught up in a spot with more traffic, or vice versa….one too quiet and the other full of energy.

Our last stop of the day is another gallery featuring glass work, and they’ve just had the opening of a major new show and a number of the pieces have sold, very impressive. The owner takes quite a bit of time to give us the background of the artists and show us the work in the backroom.

Jane then gives us an architectural and scenic highlights tour through downtown Sydney, dropping us off at the hotel after 5pm, quite a day! Yes….wackydoo!

For dinner, we decide to dine at the local street fair (see pic) and since we are so close to the hotel we bring the food back for dinner on the balcony (sort of like lunch on the deck at the beach): two styles of gyoza, colzeme (a Turkish sylye quesadilla) with spinach, cheese and chicken, Australian wine (blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc), gelato and a chocolate/pistachio muffin (much better than this morning’s version), total $55.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 0-2 Sydney

Days 0 and 2: SFO to Sydney

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
"Advance Australia fair!"

Opera House from our balcony and at ocean level; local birds; the sink in the men’s room of the Opera House (another THB first); surfer on the way to Manly Beach; tourists climbing on the harbor bridge; getting ready for high-speed harbor tour (not for us!).

We have a late flight Tuesday out of SFO and at the last minute (boarding had already started), United calls 7 of us up to the check-in counter and announces they have upgraded us to business class: YAY!!! It is $500/pp (on top of a very inexpensive fare) and 30k United miles, and well worth it. We get to lie down and sleep or, in my case, semi-sleep. I am asleep (okay, I am not always semi-sleeping cuz I have no recollection of the meal service) before they have started the dinner service (at 11pm?). I barely remember taking off. Maybe I don’t remember taking off. I do remember them saying they were closing the doors. Or, maybe not…I definitely got on the plane, that I remember.

We arrive in Sydney at 7:30 in the morning on Thursday which explains why Day 1 is missing above. After the now usual customs and immigration machinations (on our last few international trips, this has been a very uncomfortable experience mostly because a) the lines are too long and/or slow and b) the rooms are not air conditioned, so stuffy and we always have heavy carryon), and ours is the last bag off the plane (first checked?), and then there is a special dog sniffing quarantine review, an inability to find the shuttle bus to the hotel district so we cab to the hotel ($50), and at 9:30am our room is available! Ah, the joys of a shower, unpacking, internet access, and the usual Aussie friendliness, all before lunch time.

The room is great: it is a suite with kitchen, living room and office set-up, $250/night, not bad for a big city. Oh, and a view of the Opera House off our balcony. Not that you can stand on our balcony, it is the 90s and sunny and the balcony is in bright sunshine. It will be better at night when the OH is lit and the sun has set (that’s what makes it nighttime down under, right?). Note: not true, it is now very muggy at night, clammy.

After we shower, we head out for the day, mostly wandering until I decide we should visit the old general post office, converted years ago to a hotel, restaurants and a food court, well before the 2000 Olympics. I think that J&B and I ate here twice, in the basement, for sea food platters. Awesome…and no longer there! So, back we go to Wagamama’s, where blog followers will remember as a spot we ate at in the Tivoli Garden of Copenhagen. It’s too hot for ramen soup, so we have salad and grilled udon noodles. Not as good as in Copenhagen or London, and the prices are definitely at the Scandinavian end: lunch for two with two non-alcoholic drinks is $50. The Australian and US currencies are so close that basically they are near par in value and no translation required.

After lunch we continue to roam around, take a choo-choo train ride through the botanical gardens (we aren’t the only ones without kids on the thing, either…it is too hot to walk it today at this time of day, though plenty of people are strolling or picnicking, they must be Englishmen); $20. Then we decide to take a basic ferry ride on the harbor, to Manly. About half hour each way, great views of the city and the harbor, and even a strong breeze on the way back; $25 round trip for two.

Pop Quiz:
name the bird that is using its long beak to feast on fast food leftovers, and bonus points if you can identify the black/white bird also posted.

Rest up at the hotel and start figuring out where to go to dinner. The desk recommends Fish on the Rock, about a 5-7 minute walk from the hotel, moving up the hill. Turns out to be very good: local oysters, tempura prawn salad, whole baked snapper, king salmon on couscous, two glasses of wine and a local beer, $110. Since tax and tip are included in the prices (at least the tip is), dishes seem more expensive. The total though tends to mirror what we would see in the US for a comparable meal.

And, the surprise of the trip occurs early: while researching restaurants THB spots a place called Tetsuya, which he remembers somehow as being highly recommended (in 2000? In 2011? THB is lucky he remembers he got on the plane). Look at a couple of on-line reviews: it is exceptional and very hard to get into, waits of up to a year. No problem, mate: ask the receptionist to see if there are any openings for Friday night or Saturday lunch. Her response: can’t hurt to try (with truly sincere doubt in her voice). A few minutes later: were in for lunch on Saturday. This will be a big ticket, and how appropriate to celebrate THB’s ongoing b’day week (or two). Ahhhhhh, can it really be as good as Keller’s restaurants? We’ll see….