Round-the-world: Four days in Sydney

The first four days of our round-the-world trip race by in a whirl of receipts, flat whites, great meals, urban hikes, and friendly Sydneysiders.

You’ll see that receipts head my list. Australia has become one expensive lucky country, make no bones about it. A late night dash to a convenience store for bottled water, a muesli bar, and biscuits sets us back AUD17 ($16). A copy of Monocle ($10 in the US). is priced at AUD20 ($19) at a bookstore in Sydney’s Newtown. My breakfast at Forbes & Burton (252 Forbes Street, Darlinghurst) a perfect cafe-restaurant, costs AUD18, not including coffee.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fresh off Qantas 12, we check into our hotel, the Diamant Boutique Hotel Sydney at Kings Cross, with smart rooms and hallway lighting that stage-whispers discretion. Diamant Boutique is part of Eight Hotels, a small hotel chain with hotels in several Australian cities. The location, the attractive room design, the reasonable nightly rates for a boutique hotel ($161), and the Toby’s Estate coffee and pastries cart in the lobby are all strong pluses. The only minus of note is the annoying charge for Internet access in rooms, at AUD30 for two days of access. (Wireless Internet access in the lobby is free of charge.)

We spend our four days walking: through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the Sydney Opera House, across Surry Hills, Redfern, Paddington, Newtown, and Darlinghurst. One day we start out from Potts Point to Paddington and then continue all the way to Bondi Beach and then along the coastal walkway to Tamarama Beach, a pleasant five-mile stroll.

Bondi Beach on a late winter afternoon.

Newtown is probably the most interesting area in Sydney for new neighborhood watchers, a mish-mash of vintage shops both high-end and junky, a fantastic knitting café (about which more later), various hippie paraphernalia shops, one very fine bakery (Luxe Bakery at 195 Missenden Road, recommended by Australian travel journalist Tim Richards via Twitter after he noticed from my tweets that I was in Newtown), and a share of chain stores to keep things real. Luxe Bakery doesn’t appear to have a website, so I direct you to a beautiful post on the place at the fantastic food blog he needs food.We eat well in Sydney. There’s Fish Face (132 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst) where we start our meal with incredible sugar-cured ocean trout, and The Battery, (425 Bourke Street, Surry Hills) another seafood restaurant, also good and quite a bit easier on the wallet than the former. There are decadent breakfasts at the aforementioned Forbes and Burton. There is Single Origin Roasters (60-64 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills) which pairs a great, very seasonal lunch with extremely detailed coffee bean nerdism. And then there’s Bodega.

There’s been a huge buzz around Sydney’s Bodega (216 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills) for years. The tapas restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and we arrive at 5:45 pm in anticipation of the 6 pm opening. We may have been the first to congregate by the door, but by opening time there are 30 people waiting to be seated. Everyone is projecting a squirming politeness, which I take to signify a failure to embody actual patience. This is a good sign.

The meal is grand: thick local oysters; pumpkin and feta empanadas; beef empanadas; Spanish salami; fried cauliflower; a rich corn tamale; an octopus, chorizo, and potato salad. We end by sharing a banana split, a dessert with just the right amount of salt and tang to count as a fully transformed version of the original. Our waiter tells us the staff are excited about Porteño, the brand new Argentinian steak house opened last week by Bodega owners Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate.

In terms of art and design as well as cuisine, Sydney teems with homegrown energy. There are tons of great shops across Sydney showcasing strong aesthetic direction and great curatorial instincts. I was especially excited by Object at the Australian Centre for Craft and Design (417 Bourke Street, Surry Hills) which features the work of designers and craft artists from across Australia. I was especially taken by the translucent resin bowls by Dinosaur Designs. Another great shop is the Artery (221 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst) a gallery focused on contemporary Aboriginal art. We pop in and ask a few questions and proprietor Alesha Glennon provides a fascinating impromptu overview of Aboriginal art across the country. The Artery, which opened in 2005, specializes in part in work from the Utopia region, an area northeast of Alice Springs known for its female artists.

Next up: a trio of especially exciting, well-curated Sydney shops focused on sustainability in one or another form.

Check out other Capricorn Route series posts here.

How to take a round-the-world trip

An open-ended round-the-world trip can be led by whimsy and happenstance and benefit accordingly from extremely loose planning. A more structured, time-limited round-the-world trip necessitates figuring out transportation in advance. With five weeks to play with, we fell into the latter camp.

I emailed AirTreks in the spring and dutifully submitted an itinerary through their global map booking request system. AirTreks prices round-the-world itineraries, for fares well under what one would pay for each individual stretch.

Around this time, we made another decision, one personally radical. We would fly business-class the entire way. Such a choice certainly isn’t unusual for many frequent fliers, but for a budget traveler like myself who travels in coach barring those rare times I’m upgraded or am flying on someone else’s dime, this was a big shift in approach. This choice amplified the unusual nature of the itinerary, underscoring the fact that this trip wouldn’t be repeated or emulated anytime soon.

Once we nailed our itinerary down and decided to go with business-class tickets the entire way, we requested a new estimate from AirTreks. Then Matt started to play with the oneworld Explorer round-the-world booking engine. This is where things got interesting. The oneworld Explorer fare was several thousand dollars cheaper than the AirTreks fare.

There was really no decision to make. Even our patient AirTreks consultant urged us to go for the oneworld fare. We made the purchase. Though shockingly expensive by my own personal standards and customary budgetary constraints, the entire journey in business-class turned out to cost a few hundred dollars more than a single first-class round-trip ticket from New York to London.As far as subsequent planning is concerned, things have been pretty low-tech. We’ve got a handful of guidebooks (all Lonely Planet, though this is simply an accident of timing and availability) and a few downloaded iPhone apps, which I’ll comment on if they turn out to be at all helpful.

Other planning focused on the tips of friends and acquaintances. My sister, a food writer, recommended some Sydney restaurants. Melbourne chef Tony Tan, who I’d had the good fortune of meeting on my previous visit to Melbourne, passed on a must-visit list of new Melbourne restaurants. A friend of Mauritian background provided contact information of a villa rental company with beautiful properties that were simply too expensive for our budget. The exchange that followed didn’t help us with accommodations, but it did allow us to clarify our focus for Mauritius.

For hotels we scanned our guidebooks for mid-range accommodations and then searched online to get a general sense of how hotels were reviewed. I’ve always taken TripAdvisor with a massive grain of salt, as I’ve found on several occasions that I don’t mind the sorts of hotels pilloried by TripAdvisor contributors. But we did use TripAdvisor this time as a kind of quality control verification source. In one case, we nixed an otherwise appealing hotel choice based on a number of reviews that suggested an ongoing cockroach infestation.

We poked around online to find low rates at good hotels. In both Sydney and Melbourne, location was the key consideration. In Sydney we wanted a central neighborhood, and we ended up with a boutique hotel in Potts Point booked through Venere. In Melbourne I lobbied for a stay in St. Kilda, an area I remembered very fondly from my last visit. There we found a furnished studio apartment.

For our single night in Johannesburg, we decided to stay in a guesthouse in Sandton, a Johannesburg neighborhood with good restaurants. In New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Réunion, we focused on well-priced guesthouses and hotels in areas beyond built-up coastal tourist strips. In London, we opted for the Hilton in Canary Wharf because we found a good deal for it on Hotwire. The most expensive nightly rate we’re paying for a hotel is $165. The least pricey is around $82.

We made most of our hotel reservations in advance, leaving a few nights free in New Caledonia (to give us some freedom if we decided to change accommodations) and Réunion (a by-product of our inability thus far to find an inexpensive guesthouse in one of the island’s inland Cirques, or calderas.) We wanted to put logistics to bed as completely as possible in advance. More open-ended itineraries would probably benefit from fewer advance reservations.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Vinni123)

A round-the-world trip: Where?

Once I’d dispensed with my unrestricted fantasies of scurrying from seldom-visited corner to seldom-visited corner (see Monday’s post) we got down to the essentials of figuring out where we wanted to go.

The Micronesian islands of Palau and Yap were our first priorities. Both destinations had been on our radar for years. Palau with its faintly stinging marine lake jellyfish and the Federated Micronesian state of Yap with its enormous stone money both struck us as appealing in a magical, fairytale sort of way.

Once we’d identified our trip duration and got into the planning phase, however, the inclusion of Micronesia on our itinerary became a less appealing prospect. The flights there and onward were long. We’d need to overnight in Guam at least once, possibly twice, and though that wouldn’t be a hardship exactly, we wanted if at all possible to avoid layovers in places where we wouldn’t also be spending several nights.

The final clincher was the cost of zipping around Micronesia, which would have made an unavoidably pricey itinerary even more expensive. If we had been planning a round-the-Pacific tour, there is no question that Palau and Yap would have been included, but for a round-the-world trip they weren’t quite right. Reluctantly we crossed Micronesia off the list.Where else did we want to travel? We’d settled into a Southern Hemisphere focus, and we were keen to get back to Australia. We both wanted to visit Sydney and Melbourne. For a jaunt to a third city in Australia, Matt had made noises about Cairns and I focused on Perth. The inclusion of these two cities would have made a round-the-world air ticket even more complicated (more on that on Friday) so we dropped them and decided to divide our time in Australia between Sydney and Melbourne.

Years of thinking about Palau and Yap had us fantasizing about a Pacific island and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit one. We glanced across the region and zeroed in on a Pacific territory easily visited from Australia: New Caledonia, a French overseas “collectivity” three hours by plane from Sydney. We decided to sandwich six nights in New Caledonia between stays in Sydney and Melbourne. In New Caledonia we would spend most of our time on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands, with a day reserved for checking out New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa.

Beyond that, we wanted some time on Mauritius and the French overseas territory of Réunion, two Indian Ocean islands. To journey from Melbourne to Mauritius we’d need to break our rule against short layovers with a single night’s stay in Johannesburg. We’d then divide nine nights between Mauritius and Réunion, which is a short 50-minute flight from Mauritius.

From Mauritius we’d fly to London, where we’d spend the final days of our round-the-world itinerary visiting friends and exploring various East End neighborhoods.

Without further ado, here is the full itinerary: New York (via a stop to visit friends in New Orleans) to Sydney to Nouméa to Melbourne to Johannesburg to Mauritius to Réunion to London and then home to New York.

Seven stops in five weeks. After five years of daydreaming, it’d hard to believe that it’s now happening.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Eustaquio Santimano)

Angry hookers protest ad costs

Prostitutes in New South Wales are mad. Escalating advertising costs in local papers have prompted these street-walkers to take to the … um … streets. The Scarlet Alliance thus protested outside the NSW Parliament House, fighting for anti-discrimination laws to protect their rights. In addition to advertising, they want better treatment from banks, lenders and local councils.

Sex work is legal in this part of Australia, but local businesses don’t seem to be terribly interested in fairness. Remarks Ivy McIntosh, a local in the biz, “I’m paying much for a measly two inches.” There’s no indication of whether she considered her own rates for the same length.

It’s no coincidence that they chose International Whores Day to make their stand. In honor of this holiday, which began in France in 1975, the Aussie sex workers dressed in red and carried red umbrellas.

Nimbin: Australia’s Answer to Woodstock

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Sydney, Australia visiting my good friend Sarah. Rather than hang around in Sydney, we elected to road trip up to Byron Bay. Byron is a great little beach town in the northern portion of New South Wales and we had a great trip. But that’s a post for another day. Because, while we were in Byron Bay, we took a side trip to Nimbin. Everyone in Sydney had told us that if we were heading up to Byron Bay, that we had to go to Nimbin. It’s a “must see,” they told us. And it has that reputation for one reason and one reason only. Marijuana.

It’s about an hour drive to Nimbin from Byron Bay. As you leave the coast, you enter a landscape made up of farms, meadows and rolling hills. It’s breathtaking. The trip is along winding country roads and you wonder if you’ll ever encounter a town as things become more and more rural. Eventually, though, seemingly out of nowhere, the village of Nimbin appears.

We pulled right into the village and parked on the main street. The street was lined with shops specializing in hemp products, organic foods, information on medical marijuana and tourists. By no means were the sidewalks packed, but we certainly were not the only out-of-towners popping into Nimbin to see the hippies, snap some photos and check out the cannabis-crazed town.

It’s worth noting at this point that marijuana is illegal in Australia. Penalties and policies vary by state, but typically possession of small amounts can result in nothing more than a warning. For years, police looked the other way in Nimbin as marijuana sales grew more and more common. The annual Mardigrass festival brought tourists (and money) into Nimbin as people gathered to promote the repeal of cannabis prohibition. But as the drug trade grew and gangs took over the trafficking, police began to crack down and close establishments that allowed the sale or use of cannabis.

Still, everyone I spoke to said that you could buy marijuana with great ease in Nimbin. One person even told me that he was accosted by a girl with a suitcase full of cannabis looking to make a sale. Of course, neither Gadling nor I promote or encourage drug use or the violation of the laws of your country or a country in which you are traveling. I’m telling you this story purely for entertainment and educational purposes.

We strolled the main street for a bit, poked our heads into shops selling hemp clothing and pot leaf necklaces and mostly laughed at how Nimbin looks like the set of a bad movie about a hippie town. But Nimbin is very real and people take their cannabis products and promotion seriously. No one offered us drugs while on the main street, though. In fact, a police car was parked right in the middle of town and officers were walking amongst the tourists. And shopkeepers will thank you not to ask them about where you can purchase narcotics.

We were about to head back to Byron Bay, feeling a tad like failures for not having had the “true” Nimbin experience of having been offered marijuana, when I noticed a sign next to a cafe. It pointed towards “Mingle Park.” On a whim, I decided to walk into this back alley behind the cafe. American hip hop music was blasting from the speakers inside. Immediately upon reaching the “park” (it was more of a vacant lot), two young men asked us if we were looking to buy.

Discretion being the better part of valor, I played dumb. “What are looking for?,” one of them asked us. “What do you have?,” I replied.” In response, he unfurled a large plastic bag filled with marijuana. Clearly, he was comfortable with public transactions. I inquired some more about prices, quality and the like. We did this all under the clear blue Australian sky in an open space loosely occupied by about ten people leisurely milling about. I felt exposed. But I also felt like my trip to Nimbin was complete.

What happened next? Did I leave Nimbin with a special souvenir? Whoa, are you a NARC?

I guess some stories are best left unfinished. And I think this is one of them.

Check out some of my photos from Nimbin in the gallery below.