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Trip Report Phillip Island, the Dandenongs & a bit of S. Melbourne & Sydney

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Cast of characters: two devastatingly handsome young men (55 & 59) hehehe

This was our 4th business-related trip in the past four years – and on previous trips we’d seen some amazing sights, visiting N. Queensland, Pt. Douglas, & the Great Barrier Reef; the Great Ocean Road; the Grampians; and the Blue Mountains; as well as taking in many of the Sydney and Melbourne highlights. This trip was mostly business (until we arrived in NZ – which been posted as a separate trip report)—but we managed to squeeze in a bit of fun.

The trip was from November 9th thru November 21st – the first time we’ve visited during their late spring. Temperatures were nice – 70s to very low 80s – although there weren’t many sunny days; it was mostly cloudy, with periods of rain.

Note that when I mention costs, I’m not differentiating between US & AUD – because they were virtually equal at the time of this trip (as opposed to previous years when I’d bought AUD for as little as $.78 U.S.).

We stayed in South Melbourne at the BizMotel—chosen strictly for it’s proximity to where I’d be working—and for budget. A small “executive” studio apartment cost $137/night – including Internet. This is basic – on par with a Motel 6 – but worked fine for us.

I’d agonized about staying so far from the CBD. Previously, we’d stayed near Chinatown, and had liked that location. But South Melbourne was a wonderful surprise. The old buildings and quaint, Victorian terrace houses reminded me of areas of New Orleans. They call them “iron” houses because of the intricate wrought iron work. Beautiful! The South Melbourne Market was fantastic, as were the town hall, and the shops, outdoor café’s, and restaurants on Clarendon Street—and it was only a twenty minute walk to the hustle and bustle of the CBD. That was no big deal for us. We love to walk.

We fell in love with the “Portuguese Flame-Broiled Chicken” at Nando’s – a chain that we frequented throughout OZ and NZ. We enjoyed sitting outside and people watching. Dinner for two cost about $35 – not cheap for “fast-food” with no atmosphere – but healthy and delicious! Also enjoyed some wonderful, authentic Asian food.

With a few hours off on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, friends took us to St. Kilda—about a fifteen minute drive from the Melbourne CBD. It was a vibrant, funky area with great shops and cafes, and the most amazing bakeries I’ve ever seen! Sort of Australia’s version of Venice Beach, CA. Very pretty beach, and more interesting old buildings—and the boardwalk was a perfect place for watching the skate boarders and surfers – and getting a bit of a sunburn.

There was a day when I didn’t have to begin work until 3 PM – and I was thrilled to find a half-day bus tour to the Dandenong Mountains—for a ride on Puffing Billy. Several tour companies offered the identical tour – and they wound up combining them, so it wouldn’t have mattered which company we booked with. But we’d booked through Greyhound and received an Auto Club discount.

I was eager to see the Dandenongs—expecting something on par with Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Nope. I found it a pleasant, “nice” area – but neither dramatic nor spectacular, like the grandeur of the Blue Mountains. The highlight was a stop for Devonshire tea at “Grant’s,” in Sherbrooke. The tea and unlimited scones with jam & cream were delicious – but that’s not what made the visit a highlight.

The birds were INCREDIBLE. Grants’ sells bird seed – and the most beautiful wild birds perched on our arms, heads, and shoulders to get their fill. I’m a bird lover and was in heaven as I served as a feeding post for white, sulfur-crested cockatoos; gorgeous crimson rosellas; king parrots; and stunning gray & pink galahs. But be forewarned. Those cockatoos bite! Ouch!!

Puffing Billy is an old steam train. We rode it through pleasant – but not “wow” scenery. I could have done without it. This excursion was a nice day out—but not highly recommended, unless you have lots of time—or just want to feed the birds.

When we had a couple of hours off, we enjoyed strolling beautiful botanic gardens in both Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, you have the added bonus of great views of the Opera House & Bridge – and incredible “flying foxes” (gigantic bats) that hang upside down from the trees around the gift shop—and take to the sky at dusk. But Melbourne’s botanic gardens had lots to offer, as well.

We had one full day off in Melbourne and decided to use it to see the penguins on Phillip Island. All the tours I researched included places I didn’t care about: i.e., a winery (I don’t drink); a chocolate factory (I don’t eat chocolate); a farm that seemed exactly another one I’d visited. But, as much as I’d have liked the time to explore Phillip Island on my own, it wasn’t worth the hassle of renting a car for the day, and driving back in the dark—after the penguin parade.

We chose “Go West” Tours – a smaller group that went in a large van/mini-bus ($130 per person). Our driver/tour guide was hilarious—and the tour was set to music. So, for instance, as we approached the chocolate factory, songs such as “The Candy Man,” and “The Good Ship Lollipop” played over the sound system. It was a nice, fun touch.

The winery stop would have been enjoyable – if I ate and drank the things that were served! I’d envisioned a tour of vineyards and the wine-making facilities. But this was just about visiting a café and gift shop. So I sat there and watched everyone else taste the wines, artisan breads, jams; and cheeses. The connoisseurs were not impressed with the wines.

Next stop: the chocolate factory. Pleasant – but not great. There was an admission charge (included in the tour) which could only be justified if you planned to scarf up lots of free samples. There were chocolate sculptures of penguins; Dame Edna; Michelangelo’s “David,” and lots of samples. The items available in the shop were VERY expensive. So far, the tour was not exactly stellar.

On Phillip Island, our guide added a bonus—a stop at a famous race car track. Who cared about looking at a race track? But then we spotted the kangaroos – a huge herd of them!!! Apparently, they often congregate next to the race track. Who knew kangaroos were NASCAR fans? Hehehe.

Then, on to the koala sanctuary. Now, things were looking up (literally!). This isn’t a zoo—and there are no cages. It’s an enormous enclosed nature preserve where the koalas live in trees, and the tourists walk through on a platform gawking at them. Our first viewing was a mother and baby – quite close. They were kind enough to pose for some fantastic photos, much to the delight of the tourists.

These koalas were quite a bit larger than the ones we’d seen in N. Queensland. Adorable! We eventually tore ourselves away and continued along the boardwalk where we saw quite a few other koalas—but they were much farther away—higher up in the trees. It was a pretty area, and I would have enjoyed a longer stay—but the tour packed in quite a bit, and we had a schedule to keep.

We had a very short dinner stop in Cowes, where there were a variety of restaurants. The beach across from the restaurant was beautiful, and I would have loved 30 minutes to wander, but I only had time for a few quick photos—then back on the bus.

The “Nobbies” was our next stop. En route, we spotted quite a few wallabies. The Nobbies is an area of Phillip Island that is absolutely stunning. The coast was wild and rugged, and studded with rock formations, and the views from the cliffs were gorgeous. It was reminiscent of some of the prettiest Irish or Scottish coasts. We had sufficient time to walk the path along the cliff and take lots of photos. The sea birds were awesome; the water was the most intense blue; and it was a non-stop Kodak moment.

Now, it was time for the main attraction: The Penguins! A friend had mentioned that paying extra for a “premium” seat in the bleachers was a waste of money. WRONG!!! Thank heavens we sprung for the extra $15 per person, saying, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime-experience …” It was – and the better viewing area made a huge difference.

Our guide served coffee, tea, and cookies as he explained that the penguins’ main predators are large birds, such as eagles and hawks. He told us that the penguins would gather into groups to look larger, before emerging from the water and taking the risky, unprotected journey across the beach. From our “premium viewing stand” we watched as the penguins poked their heads above the water, waiting until dusk provided safety. Several times, they’d begin to come onto the beach, then rush back to the safety of the water if a bird flew overhead.

When they felt it was dark enough to venture across the beach safely, the first penguins came out of the water and waddled right past our viewing stand, en route to their burrows in the hills just past the beach. They stopped and preened, apparently unfazed by the presence of humans. Special lights allowed us to see the penguins—without disturbing them. I soon realized that I could get a much better view if I left the stands and crouched down to their eye level beside the path they walked to get to their burrows. They were SO cute—and OMG, close enough to touch (which is forbidden – and there are rangers watching).

It was the height of penguin mating season, and the pengies are not shy ;-) I hadn’t heard sounds like that since I lived in West Hollywood! Before we left, I’d been within a few feet of at least 1,000 wild penguins. Not being permitted to take any photos was akin to a hideous, new form of torture for me. But they’re very strict about “No Photography” whatsoever. They don’t want an accidental (or intentional) flash to spook the penguins. Apparently, we had an exceptionally good turnout, and the experience will forever be a cherished memory, and a highlight of my Australian trip.

Our next stop was New Zealand—covered in a different trip report.

I hope this report will help others in their planning. A link to some photos will arrive soon ;-).

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