Archive for February 2010
After two days of total relaxation we decide we need to change it up a bit so we sign up for a snorkelling tour with Sun Dive that takes us out to the marine reserve at Julien Rock – about 2.5 km off the coast. Note – this tour is not for the faint of heart. Other snorkelling tours I have done in the Caribbean have been on a large boat that serves drinks on the way out to the reef, when you arrive its crystal blue calm waters, and you float around until they say it’s time to get back on the boat. Here you gear up with full wetsuits and then jump in the van which gets you to the beach. The fun starts once you help get the scuba boat in the water. With the waves crashing over the sides of the speed boat, you have to time your jump into the boat with the wave to make sure you make it. Once everyone is in, we head out for a wicked ride through massive waves, holding on for dear life to the ropes on the sides of the boat.
If you have any fear of swimming or water, or get seasick easily, stay on the shore. Once we get to the rocks, we jump out into the waters, and a whole world below the sea is opened up to us. From giant sea turtles to sting rays, schools of fish and even sharks! This place does not disappoint. It feels peaceful and serene floating in the water letting the current take you, when above the water the waves are crashing furiously against the rocks. Before we know it the current has taken us way out, and with no chance of swimming against it to get back in, we signal the speedboat for a pick up. You need to keep your nerves a bit out here as the currents are incredibly strong, and even strong swimmers such as Andrew and I, don’t stand a chance. Back in the boat we head to shore, bouncing over the massive waves and getting drenched –luckily with the wetsuits it doesn’t really matter. An incredible day out at sea, that has inspired me to start taking a serious look at waterproof cameras.
With only one main street, and no traffic lights, Byron Bay is the perfect beach town. There are more tourists here than locals, and the town has a laid back beach vibe that is noticeable from the minute you enter the town. With miles of beautiful beaches and one of the best surfing spots at The Pass, in Australia, it’s easy to see why the locals work hard at preserving their small town feel. It’s the polar opposite (so I’ve heard), of Surfer’s Paradise, with all its glitz and glamour and high rise condo’s. Here the locals live the slogan – no shirt, no shoes, no other way to live. Don’t get me wrong though, there are enough activities and events here to keep you (and the thousands of other tourists) busy. From snorkelling, diving, surfing, skydiving, spas and golf courses there is something for everyone, whatever your pace is.
We spend the first few days totally relaxing at the beach during the day and then hanging out in hammocks back at the hostel or in the swimming pool. There are tons of cute shops that remind you of the hippy roots of this town. If you are looking for some happy herbs or a tie-die shirt, this is your place. Friday night we meet up with Andrew’s university friends and have some drinks back at their hostel, Nomads before heading over to Lalaland for the night.
Saturday we meet some Canadians staying at our hostel, and head out to The Railway club with them for the evening, since it’s the one fellow’s birthday. After the bar we have our first Australian meet pies, from a bakery down the street that makes them fresh all day. I grab a chicken and Andrew gets a Beef pie – I can’t believe we have waited over 5 months to try a pie – they are delicious! Perfect after a night out drinking at the bar.
We wake up in Coffs Harbour for Andrew’s 28th birthday. We start the day off with go-karting at the F1 Rally course about 20 minutes south of Coff’s Harbour. It’s my first time go-karting and I give it best, spinning out twice around the hairpin curve. We had planned to go jet skiing as well but the weather isn’t the best, so we decide to head out to Byron Bay so we can spend the night there to celebrate. Back on the road again, we stop at a number of secluded beaches along the way. One of the best spots to stop at is Lennox head for great views over the water.
We make it to Byron around 5pm and head straight to the lighthouse, one of the most picturesque areas on the east coast, and the easterly most point in Australia. We watch the sunset at Little Watego’s beach, perched out on the rocks, and they hurry back to the car so we don’t get stuck out in the dark. We pull up to our hostel for the night, Aquarius, and it feels like we have entered backpacker party heaven. We aren’t in Kansas anymore for sure. The music is blaring from the bar right in the middle of hostel and people seem to be coming and going from everywhere. If you are looking for a quiet night in, this is not the place for you. After getting our bearings and grabbing some food, we head down to the Beach Hotel for a few drinks. A great place right on the water to listen to live music and grab a beer. Andrew’s friends are heading into town tomorrow, so we take it easy tonight, knowing we have a big weekend ahead. Now I just have to find a surf board for the rest of Andrew’s birthday present!
Back on the road again heading north up the coast with Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour as the stopovers on the way to Byron. There are tons of small beaches that litter the coast on the drive and will tempt you for staying longer in the small towns in between.
Most of our time is spent taking the tourist drive turnoffs and stopping at the numerous lookouts and beaches along the way. Nothing like getting a quick swim in on the way. Port Macquarie doesn’t have much to offer for backpacker accommodations surprisingly. There are a few options, of which the YHA is the best, but still nothing to boast about.
On the road from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour, I recommend heading inland if time permits through Bellingen to the Dorrigo National Park. There are a number of waterfalls that line the trip as well as a Skywalk at the
Rainforest information center that will take you out over the rainforest for views to the valley below. (Unfortunately when we were there it was rainy and foggy and we could barely see the end of the walkway! But I am sure it is beautiful nonetheless.) We finally arrive in Coffs Harbour around 6pm, a full 8 hours after leaving Port Macquarie even though its only about a 3 hour drive direct. The YHA here is one of the best we have stayed in so far. It’s a brand new building, with a swimming pool, BBQ’s, free parking and tons of other extras. There is lots to see and do in Coff’s from surfing to jetskiing to horseback riding, go-karting and more. You could easily spend several days here, but we are leaving tomorrow so we can get to Byron Bay to celebrate Andrew’s 28th birthday.
The sun is beating down on us as we head west into the Hunter Valley. 20 minutes west of Newcastle and we have entered the outskirts of the valley. Nothing now but fields and vines and some small towns that dot the map. Just over an hour later and we arrive at the Hunter Valley YHA. This place defines the middle of nowhere. The ranch style hostel sits in the middle of the empty field, you can see for miles in all directions. At least it has a pool for a refreshing dip in the evening. Steph and her boyfriend, Josh, meet us at the hostel and then take us on a personal tour of the valley. First stop, McGuigan’s, one of Australia’s biggest wineries. We take this opportunity to really learn the differences between the styles and flavours of wines. As it turns out I am not a fan of port or desert wines after trying more than a few varieties. After several samples here, it’s off to the cheese shop next door. This helps to offset all the wine! Next stop Brokenwood winery, followed by the Olive store – not just olives here, lots of great dips and spreads to sample. Several more stops later and Andrew and I are definitely feeling the effects of the wine.
All the small samples really add up! Make sure you have a designated driver, or take an organized tour. Our last stop of the afternoon is Drayton’s winery. We get in just before closing time, and manage to score a few free bottles of wine that they were using for samples during the day. Can’t complain about free wine! Back at the hostel we hang out by pool in the late afternoon sun and have a lazy evening, not that there is anything else to do here anyways! Just us and the crickets out here tonight.
The weekend is here, and after two night of sleeping on the ground I am looking forward to a comfortable bed in the Newcastle YHA. The YHA hostel here is a beautiful old building, it used to be a Gentlemen’s club, and boasts high ceilings, with dark wood and leather couches in the main lounge room, giving it a feeling of grandeur .
There is a pool table, table tennis, free bikes, board games, DVD’s and more. By far one of the best hostels we have stayed at between New Zealand and Australia. We head into town first to check out the weekday markets. The main street has a number of vendors set up selling all different kinds of foods and wears. We decide on some mini sugar donuts and homemade curry for lunch. Next, we head down to the boardwalk along the harbour and walk down to Nobby’s Head, a small piece of land jutting out into the harbour that has waves crashing into it on both sides. You can’t miss the large caution sign warning of hazardous waves in high tide. Night time is here, and everyone in the hostel is enjoying a drink or two. There are lots of people keen on going on here, and Newcastle, surprisingly has some pretty good nightlife. We head down to The Brewery – restaurant/bar by day, and dance club by night. You can enjoy a drink by the water downstairs, or head upstairs to listen to the live band.
Sunday, we meet up with Steph for lunch, a friend I met 2.5 years ago on a Contiki tour through Europe. We grab some lunch and drinks along with some of her girlfriends down at the Honeysuckle area of the harbour. They are off to their staff Christmas party tonight, so we spend the rest of the day relaxing at the beach and hanging out at the hostel. Newcastle is a must-see on a trek up the east coast, lots of beautiful beaches, good restaurants, and great nightlife, perfect for any backpacker.
After two days in the city, we are changing up the pace with two nights camping at The Basin in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. Located only 25km outside of Sydney, it feels like you are a million miles away from city life as soon as you enter the park. Taking the scenic drive around the park will lead to some spectacular views at West Head Point that are worth the stop. There are two ways to get to The Basin, park at the top and hike 3km in, or take the Ferry from Palm Beach. The advantage of doing the hike is you get to drive around the park, and parking is free. However, there is limited parking at the top so you have to take your chances. It is a full facility camp ground with BBQ’s, toilets and showers, but a bit on the pricey side for camping at $14/night/pp.
Upon arriving at The Basin, the first thing you will notice is that there are kangaroos everywhere! The place is filled with wildlife all enjoying the camp grounds right along beside you. Surrounded by Broken Bay, the water is calm and peaceful, just like a lake, perfect for swimming. On Friday we take the ferry over to Palm Beach, a strip of land jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. The waves here roar onto shore; swimming is not recommended due to strong currents and blue bottle jellyfish. Not much to see in the Palm Beach area other than the beach itself, it’s mostly a retirement town with stunning homes lining the shore. As we take the return ferry back on Friday afternoon, our serene campground has turned into a tent city, with families showing up left and right. Word to the wise, if you are looking for peace and quiet, camp Monday to Thursday to avoid the weekend surge.