Friday, January 21, 2005

Australia: Day One...

As requested I'm going to write about my Australia trip in more detail. So here's how it begins...

Sunday, October 5, 2003
My parents drove down from Caseville just so they could drive me to the airport. They knew how much I'd always wanted to go to Australia and were quite proud. I got there with plenty of time to spare. I don't want to take any chances on a huge international trip. I get checked-in, wave goodbye to my parents, and wait in line at the X-ray machine. It takes a while because of the new higher security and I've got to take my boots off. I decided to wear the boots on the plane so I'd have more room in my luggage. This makes things more difficult at security points, but it makes everything else easier. So I get past security and find my gate. Did I mention that I'm flying Northwest? I've got a few hours to spare so I find a bar and begin my vacation with a couple of beers (which will be a common theme throughout the trip). I figure that I've spent enough on airport beers and find a seat at the gate. I've got a book to read (Crush by Max Allen) so I'm good for a while. Okay, the flight was supposed to leave at 7:28PM and arrive in LA at 9:28PM. My Qantas flight was supposed to leave LA at 11:45PM. It's 7:30 PM in Detroit and there's no plane yet. Another half hour goes by and still no plane. Turns out the great folks at Northworst Airlines can't find the plane. How can you not find a f'in jet? I'm starting to stress out big-time because I don't want to miss my Qantas flight. The Northworst flight finally leaves about two hours late. I'm paranoid for the entire length of the flight. The entire flight takes place in darkness and all I get is a shitty sandwich and a glimpse of the Vegas lights. I finally deboard and have to figure out where I'm going. My checked luggage was supposed to be put on the Qantas plane and I didn't have time to worry about that (it made it, luckily). Turns out that LAX is shaped like a horseshoe. Turns out that my arrival was at one end and I had to get to the other end (the longest distance possible). I didn't see any straight line. You can't walk/run the distance indoors either. You've got to do the entire thing on the sidewalk (none of those fancy moving sidewalks). I had two carry-ons and I'm out of shape. I had about 40 minutes until my flight was supposed to leave. It took forever, but I finally arrived at the international (Qantas) terminal sweating and completely out of breath.

I find the Qantas check-in and they were very accomodating. I had another security check in and then I was on my way to the gate. Luckily the terminal was pretty empty. I made it to the gate with about 30 minutes to spare. I'm sweating and panting and about to meet some of my co-travelers for the first time. That's always a great first impression. I'm looking around for anyone with a sign, but to no avail. The gate is packed as the flight is full. Luckily I'm wearing my "Got Wine?" T-shirt and I'm approached by a few people wondering if we're in the same group. Yup. The first people I met were Brittney from San Diego (retail), Trudy from Chicago (restaurant/corporate buyer), and Nathan from Phoenix (retail). My first impression was, "Cool. I'm gonna love these people." We talked for a while and we were all obviously very excited. The plane boards and we're not sitting next to each other, but that's cool. Qantas is an awesome, amazing airline! The amazingly attentive flight crew were the most professional I've seen since Swiss Air many years ago. Great job guys! They've got to be good because the flight is BRUTAL! Don't ever get a window seat for the LONGEST DIRECT FLIGHT ON EARTH! I learned that the hard way. I always loved the window seat when I was a kid, but that was when my ass had plenty of room to move around in the seat. Times, like my ass, have changed. The couple sitting next to me were Australian (he was an Aussie rules football player and the entire team was on the plane). They played some sort of exhibition game in LA or something. They were nice enough, but slept an awful lot. I cannot sleep on a plane! I was up for all 16 hours. I didn't want to wake them up if I had to go to the bathroom. I'd grab any opportunity to get up and walk around or go to the loo when they were both awake. We had a fine dinner, a snack bag filled with goodies, and a fantastic breakfast (by airline standards). The cool thing about Qantas in economy class is that there are flat screen moniters in all the seats. We could watch all sorts of movies, shows, videos, or play video games. I played a bit of Tetris. Any distraction helps when you're trapped in an aluminum tube being hurled through the air. I also did the recommended leg excercises in my seat so that I may not get a blood clot and die. You can also watch the progress of your flight on a map on the moniter. That was pretty neat. We flew very close to Hawaii, but I didn't see anything. The fantastic flight crew had three uniform changes during the flight. Classy! Turns out that you don't fly over ANYTHING when you fly to Sydney. Just water. In the dark. Nothing to look at except for the very rare ship light. We flew for about 14 hours in complete darkness. The sun started to come out as we approached Australia, but there was still nothing but water. The blinding blue was a nice change from the black, though. We finally reach Sydney and the very cool and competent pilot did a loop around the Sydney so that everyone on the plane can get a view of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. How cool is that?

Tuesday, October 7, 2003
We land in Sydney at approximately 7:30AM on Tuesday. What?!?!? That Internationl Date Line thing is kind of confusing. I deboard the plane stiff and tired, but excited as hell. I finally made it to Australia. I couldn't believe that I finally made it to the continent of my dreams. I go through customs and find Jan (the amazing and very able President of the Australian Wine Bureau). She leads me to our bus and I finally get to meet the rest of the crew. Philippa (the amazing organizer of the trip from the AWB), Sara from Ocean City, MD (retail), Shayn from Seattle (sommelier), Nichole from San Francisco (restaurant), Eric from Tampa (sommelier), Tim from San Fran (wine writer and music attorney), and Jordan (wine writer). I picked up right away that this was going to be a fantastic group of people. We took the bus from the airport to our hotel in The Rocks district (with a very friendly tour guide pointing things out and giving us a brief history lesson of the city). We were staying at the Holiday Inn in The Rocks. It was very nice and I really liked my room with great view of George Street. We had a few hours to ourselves and they recommended that we do not take a nap as it may screw us up. I settled into the room and took a shower and got out of my nasty flight clothes. I felt so refreshed. Now it was time to conquer Sydney!

I stepped out of the hotel and made my way down George Street. It was cool and sunny outside. Very refreshing. October in Australia is Spring. Our hotel was just about a block away from Circular Quay and the most amazing view of the Opera House on the right and the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the left. Wow!!! The Opera House is really breathtaking when you get to see it in person. What a perfect day! There's lots of water traffic in the harbour (mostly the big yellow harbour ferries that dock at Circular Quay). I took a bunch of pictures and then wandered around the historic The Rocks district. I found a nice little cafe and ordered a "short black" (espresso). Wow! This is better than any espresso I ever had in the U.S., I thought. It was my intention to buy some opals for a couple of friends while I was in Australia. I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity later in the trip, so I figured I'd better jump on it now while I had a little time. Luckily I found any amazing opal shop called Flame Opals on George Street. I found a couple of really nice items for my friends that were somewhat affordable and made the purchase. The saleslady was the most professional that I've ever encountered. Amazing customer service! What a great country! They had some truly amazing opals that were way out my price range (solid opals that were over $100,000). I wandered around some more and found the oldest pub in Sydney and took a picture.

I had to meet back at the hotel around noon and we then took taxis to Nielsen Park Kiosk at Vaucluse for lunch and a wine-tasting. We didn't have time to go to the Hunter Valley so the winemakers came to see us. We had a really nice tasting and an amazingly fresh lunch that included some great local oysters on the halfshell with lime. They also had some fantastic smoked salmon (smoked that day on the premises). Nielsen Park Kiosk primarily serves Italian food, but we had quite a selection of seafood, beef, pasta, and salad. Also a very nice homemade gelato. The sun was out and it was a beautiful day. We were right there by the beach and had a great view. It was heavenly and the perfect welcome to Australia. After lunch Michael Hope from Hope Estate Winery and a rep from Pikes Winery volunteered to drive us to Watson's Bay for some beer. We sampled some of the local wares including Coopers and Cascadian. We sat there for a couple of hours enjoying each others company and the hospitality of our hosts while the sun was slightly setting on the beatitul harbour. The view we had from our outdoor table at Watson's Bay was stunningly surreal. This is the first time on the trip that we had to relax together and get to know each other a bit. It was fantastic. It was time to head out and we were able to get a water taxi to go back to the hotel. Sydney is sprawled out across a very large and winding harbour. It's actually sometimes quicker to get around by boat than drive. The sun was setting and the view of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge was absolutely breathtaking. The boat captain/driver was kind enough to occasionally stop for us so we could take pictures. The colors in the sky behind the Opera house were indescribable. Heavenly! The boat docked about a block from our hotel and we had the evening free so we had to come up with a game-plan. Nichole went off on her own to go on a guided ghost tour of Sydney and Shayn went to see a production at the Opera House with his girlfriend (she flew in with us, but then went out on her own until she met up with him later to go to the Great Barrier Reef). The rest of decided to walk around and find a place to eat. We walked around a for quite some time as no one was being very decisive and we settled on a nice Chinese/Malay restaurant. We shared some appetizers while we chatted and enjoyed some beer and wine. It was a nice bonding experience and we had shared a great afternoon together. I was having a ball. We started to head back to the hotel, but then Sara and Tim and I decided it was too early to retire and we found a nice pub and had a few beers together. My stress from the Northwest flight of course had completely dissapated at this point and I was fully relaxed. We returned to the Holiday Inn and called it a night. I still couldn't fall asleep as I was high on adrenaline so I watched a little Aussie TV in my room (and a little South Park). We had to meet in the lobby at 8:00AM, Wednesday morning to have the world's greatest breakfast...
(to be continued)



Blogger Glen said...

I'll say it again, you're a born storyteller Jason.

6:55 PM  

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