In this issue our good friend Kevin and his wife Lorna go on a Christmas travel adventure to Singapore and Australia – it’s this month’s long read folks so settle back and enjoy…
There’s nothing quite like the smugness of turning up at the airport for a near three week trip across the world, with everything neatly tucked into one cabin bag each. I’ll never know how I managed to persuade wife Lorna that this was a good idea, but we rationalised it by taking into account we were a) going where the sun always shines, so we wouldn’t need to wear much, and b) we were too tight fisted to eat at the best restaurants, so we wouldn’t need an extensive array of chic suits and heavy jewellery. Add in the fact that we shelled out for Meet and Greet Parking at Heathrow and paid for a lounge, well, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we sauntered past a football stadium size crowd queueing up for baggage check, inching ever nearer behind suitcases the size of bungalows.
Joy undimmed by a 90 minute delay to our Singapore Airlines flight to …. Erm … Singapore, we settled into our economy seats for the overnight flight, cabin bags neatly stowed in the overhead locker. Then imagine our further delight when a stewardess shuffled seating to move a young man to the emergency exit seat, which meant the old guy next to us was able to move to the seat in front, leaving Lorna and I with three seats between two.
The pre-dinner glass of red (served at around 11pm) tasted even better, and we toasted our good fortune.
Ah, the joys of travel!
Our epic journey (epic by our standards anyway) was three nights in Singapore, four nights in Melbourne, three nights by the sea at Port Stephens, two nights in the Blue Mountains, and a cheeky three night stay in Sydney.
And it was all going so well…. Until I picked through my meagre clothing supply on the first morning in Singapore and realised that a) it was raining and b) I had forgotten to pack spare socks and underpants. I quickly calculated I could never deceive Lorna by discreetly buying underwear in one of the many massive stores in Singapore, so I duly confessed. Lorna merely smiled and produced a compact umbrella (which she had thoughtfully remembered to cram into her luggage), and the holiday began.
Our marriage survived, and so I proudly present my thoughts for fellow travellers considering a similar adventure.
SINGAPORE – each shopping centre is about the size of Plymouth, so don’t even think of browsing for socks and underwear; don’t miss the Gardens by the Bay with their iconic steel trees; if you fancy a walk, go there via the beautiful Helix bridge in the Marina Bay area – it’s so special, people get married on there; try the Night Safari next to the Zoo but get there as early as you can and consider buying a meal package that gives you priority boarding if you want to ride round on the tram first; it is extremely humid so take advantage of interiors to cool off, and if it makes your hair go frizzy copy the locals and use Argan Oil (it worked for Lorna, anyway); look out for the places the locals eat and enjoy authentic flavours at a fraction of hotel prices; and if it is your first time, definitely get the hop on/off open top bus ticket (the two day offer is good value)… we went for the red double decker but they are all pretty good and you can just pay the driver.
MELBOURNE – we stayed in a trendy part of the city, at the Olsen on Chapel Street; it’s about a 30 minute walk by the river into the centre which was fine when we were there because it wasn’t so hot, BUT a few days after we left, the temperature hit 42 degrees; the area we were in is called South Yarra (south of the river of the same name) and there were some good shops you wouldn’t get lost in (some of which sold rather excellent underwear), plus a 24/7 bar restaurant. We loved Chapelli’s (try a local beer and a big bowl of potato wedges and you’ll understand); Melbourne city was manically busy in the run up to Christmas – loads of families and coachfuls of tourists walking slowly under the weight of their Canons and Nikons; we loved the spectacular State Library atrium area; and had a great day out on a trip to Phillips Island to see the little penguins completely ignoring everyone and scurrying across the beach and up the hill to get some kip after a long day’s fishing. We would recommend catching a train from South Yarra station direct to Williamstown, which has some great places to eat, scenic and shady gardens, plus very welcome fresh air, and no crowds.
PORT STEPHENS – we flew Virgin Australia from Melbourne to Newcastle, a 90 minute flight that caused masses of stress. We got a message from Virgin a few hours before departure to say it had been cancelled because of disruption from storms near Sydney (a cheering thought) and they had booked us on a flight via Brisbane the next day but it would take nearly five hours … then we checked and discovered there was a direct flight later that afternoon. We managed to get ourselves on that flight only because we had booked everything through Trailfinders, who were absolutely brilliant in chasing up the problem. I think we would have struggled to get any joy out of Virgin on our own. In the end, we lost about two thirds of the day, but made it to our destination after picking up a hire car at Newcastle Airport (a rather large automatic Toyota Camry, if you must know). Fortunately, we found Australian drivers to be the best behaved we have ever known, despite the provocation of me dawdling along nervously trying not to get lost. Our target was the Oaks Pacific Blue Resort, where we had reserved what they call a Studio Swimout Room – basically, an apartment with a basic kitchen, and a balcony from which you could step saucily into the pool. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone else wanted a Swimout Room too which meant it got rather noisy out on the balcony, and breakfast was punctuated by large people in big hats floating serenely past on pink flamingo inflatables. But the area around the resort was fantastic, with great beaches, and some excellent walks along coastal paths. Our Christmas Eve treat was lunch at the Little Beach Boathouse in nearby Nelson Bay – superb seafood and service.
BLUE MOUNTAINS – bravely driving up into the hills, we decided to go a more scenic and interesting route through the Hunter Valley rather than following the main road, which is about a one hour drive; seven hours later, and regretting our decision after a succession of stops at completely uninteresting and/or shutdown service areas, we arrived at the beautiful Carrington Hotel in the region’s capital Katoomba. The Carrington looks colonial and atmospheric and amazing, but I’m not sure the staff have quite got the hang of delivering the service that goes with it. I ordered a cocktail at Champagne Charlie’s Bar (yeah, I know, I should have known better) and the unsmiling waitresss shouted out to me that it was ready. What? I have to go up to the bar to collect it from you? Okaaaaay …. That said, the reception desk was very professional, the front terrace is a great place for a drink and a snack, and we did get a room upgrade to the Prince Edward Suite no less. Hope he didn’t mind being kicked out … The Blue Mountains highlight was a one day Scenic World pass, which took us on a ride on a vertical drop train into the depths of the rain forest below, and a ride on a couple of cable cars to admire the views. Once again, though, go early and leave early … it was horrendously crowded by around lunchtime … but then, it was the Christmas holidays.
SYDNEY – the Park Royal at Darling Harbour was a good hotel, close to the marina, the Chinese Gardens, and a shopping/food area we liked called Harbourside; we took our own advice and got open top bus tickets so we could see the sights without the sweats; don’t miss the opportunity to catch a ferry that gets you to city suburbs and gives you great views along the way; we loved Rose Bay, next to Bondi Beach, and had a great breakfast at Sonoma café before crossing the road to cut through to the beach with its distant views of the harbour bridge, and lots of people topping up their Christmas tans. Sydney is of course very busy at the places you’d expect (opera house, the bridge…) but the botanic gardens next to the opera house provide welcome peace and shade. We were there just before New Year, so shouldn’t have been too surprised to find that just about the whole waterfront was festooned with security fences and barricades. Typical of us, we flew out on New Year’s Eve, while just about the whole world seemed to be staking a position for the fireworks. While in the air, we read that horrendous hail storms had battered Sydney just before the big moment, but, to be honest, we were too tired to be smug, for once, even though we had lashed out on Premium Economy for the two flights home.
Sydney to Singapore is about an eight hour flight, Singapore to London around 12 hours… and Singapore Airlines provide excellent facilities, food and service. We’d have no qualms about travelling with them again.
We think we saw in the New Year three times, but we were so disorientated by time differences by the time we got off Wightlink’s shiny new ferry that we weren’t too sure of our own names, never mind what day it was.
It is 2019, isn’t it?
#Kevin’s trip was booked through Trailfinders … trailfinders.com
Words and Pictures: Kevin Wilson