Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Back from Australia, part 1

We just returned from our trip! We went to Australia, partly for my spouse to attend a conference, and partly for vacation.

We spent our first few days at The Grange at Cleveland Winery, where the conference was held. Very posh, and I'm glad we weren't footing the bill. Cleveland Winery is in the Macedon Ranges, a rural area 45 minutes north of Melbourne. Sheep, highland cattle, and alpacas are raised in this area. Alpacas are the cutest!

Among the birds we sighted here were the bright blue male superb fairy-wren and the Australian magpie, which looks like a crow with white markings on its back and wings and has a haunting call.

It was chilly and wet in this part of the country, and we even had hail one evening.

The following weekend, we took a plane to Canberra and then drove up to Magellan Observatory, 1.5 hours northeast of the airport.

Magellan Observatory is like a camp for amateur astronomers. You can rent a cabin, and you can also rent telescopes and other equipment for stargazing. Here's a picture we took of the Keyhole Nebula using their astrophotography equipment:

Magellan Observatory is in a rural area surrounded by brown hills with low-lying scrub and eucalyptus trees, not unlike parts of California during the dry season. Around the observatory, we saw two kinds of parrots: pink-chested, gray-winged galahs, and crimson rosellas with bright red heads and blue markings on the wings. We also saw a herd of kangaroos, but they hopped away before we could get a picture! On the drive back to the Canberra airport, we saw sulphur-crested cockatoos.

Then we headed back to Melbourne for a couple of days, this time staying in the city itself. I really liked Melbourne. It's a diverse, cosmopolitan city, but without Sydney's level of hustle and bustle, so I'm told. It has a mix of modern and Victorian architecture (and some Art Deco thrown in). There are two universities and lots of museums, restaurants, historical sites, and other cultural venues. The city has pretty good transit and a walkable downtown.

Melbourne is something of a chowhound haven. Because of the extensive immigrant influence from nearby Asian countries as well as Europe and Africa, you see a lot of restaurants serving Indonesian, Japanese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Greek, and South African food. One of my stranger restaurant choices was a fast-food joint called Lord of the Fries.

I had fries with garlic aioli (yum) and a mini-burger with the signature LOTF vegan patty, though the patty was so seasoned and spicy that I couldn't honestly tell you what it was made of. (Still yum.) By the way, Aussies are pretty serious about their fries, which are usually called "chips" (and ketchup is called "tomato sauce"). Servings of fries are huge, and at LOTF, they basically had two sizes: large fries, and a boxful of fries.

And Melburnians are serious about their coffee, more so than any American cities I've seen. I was passing through a shopping mall, and it seemed like each of the four levels had 10 cafés apiece. In the commercial districts, it seems like every third storefront is a café. They do have Starbucks here, but its presence pales beside the overwhelming number of independent cafés.

Coffee (and tea) seem to be pretty big in Australia in general. Every accomodation we stayed at, from the fancy winery to the dingy dorm room, had an electric kettle for making tea or coffee. I especially enjoyed the widespread custom of morning and afternoon tea, which are in addition to (not in place of) breakfast and lunch. It includes not only tea, but some pretty substantial snacks like scones, muffins, fruit, cookies, sandwiches...I'm getting carried away here :)

Another delightful food discovery in Melbourne was the chocolate. Koko Black is a chocolate salon where a hostess seats you and then you order from a menu that contains nothing but chocolate: desserts, hot chocolate, chocolate cocktails, and more. We had hot chocolates and a dessert sampler plate called the Belgian Spoil.

Max Brenner is a another chocolate shop and bar.

The signature item on their drink menu is the "Suckao", a concentrated shot of melted chocolate served in a special flame-warmed mug. Sadly, I didn't get to try it, but I did take home some boxed chocolates.

Haigh's Chocolates is yet another Melburnian chocolate outfit, but I didn't even get to stop in. So many chocolate shops, so little time!

To be continued...

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