Driving in a foreign country is challenging enough...but how about throwing in a steering wheel on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road? It's no joke. Imagine doing something one way for 17 years to a point where it's almost second nature and then force yourself to suddenly do the opposite.
My mom was brave enough to put her life in my hands as we set off for the second leg of our trip. After spending three days in Sydney navigating ferries, riding trains and walking...we were ready for a new adventure. This one took us south of Sydney to a little town called Nowra (which I had to practice several times before pronouncing it correctly in an Aussie accent..."Naaahhhh-Raaa.")
As I mentioned in my previous post, the main reason for making this trip was to attend the wedding of my dear friends Jenna and Ben. Both are from Sydney but currently make their home in San Francisco. Jenna and I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring new restaurants in the city and we all play kickball together in the summer.
They chose a beautiful estate with a gorgeous country setting. Everything about it fit Jenna and Ben perfectly. The wedding itself was classy and very personal, as their siblings performed the ceremony. Some of the food is even sourced from the herb and vegetable garden on site, and the reception was lively and fun...especially when Ben got on the microphone and sang "500 Miles" while the entire room laughed and danced. It was a truly memorable evening, and I was so happy I could be part of it.
After saying our goodbyes at the wedding brunch the following morning, mom and I were off once again. I insisted on making a short detour further south to check out Hyams Beach, which boasts the whitest sand in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Unfortunately, it was sort of overcast that day, so we didn't stay too long, but it was just as well...as we had a five hour drive ahead of us to make it to wine country.
While I was researching accommodations for our trip, it was often challenging to stay below our budget of $200 per night. (As I mentioned before, Australia is expensive!) I discovered Bed and Breakfasts were slightly less expensive than hotels and of course, breakfast was included. I'm so glad we went this route. Not only was I able to keep our costs between $140 and $195 per night, but we also met some amazing people who gave us great recommendations for tours and restaurants, and we stayed in some really cool spots.
One of our favorites was in Hunter Valley, at Splinters Guest House. The lovely Bobby was our host during our stay and cooked up some amazing breakfasts. It's technically billed as "continental," but aside from the cereals, yogurt, toast and fruit...Bobby also adds a few cooked items as well. The first day we received little mini frittatas and she made poached eggs another morning. She also provided a little welcome of cheese, wine, chocolate and port on our arrival. Hunter Valley is drastically cheaper during the week (Sunday-Thursday), so keep that in mind if you decide to go there.
With that said, you should also keep in mind that many of the better restaurants in the area can be closed Sundays, Mondays and/or Tuesdays. We were lucky that Restaurant Botanica was open on Sunday night when we arrived, and came highly recommended by Bobby. It was also extremely close to the B&B, so we didn't have to go too far after spending most of the day in the car. This place was right up there with some of our amazing meals in Sydney. A two-course meal will run you $65 each, and includes an amuse bouche and an assortment of freshly baked artisan bread. (The original starter for the sourdough is over 150 years old!) They also have a kitchen garden, which they use to source many of the herbs and vegetables for their meals.
Our amuse bouche was a large prawn (mom's fave), and we also ordered a beetroot salad and fried softshell crab to start. Mom ordered the prawns gnocchi for her main course (there was a running joke that she ordered prawns at pretty much any restaurant that offered it on the menu). Since I didn't get lamb at Aria, I ordered it here (the lamb in Australia is abundant and delicious). It was served over a bed of soft polenta. It was tender and flavorful and it was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the trip.
We spent our first day in the Hunter on a wine tour to sort of get the lay of the land and then set off on our own the second day. At Bobby's suggestion, we selected Two Fat Blokes, and had a fabulous time. Grahame was our guide for the day, and he was as knowledgable and entertaining as he was sarcastic, which we appreciated. We chose the Hunters & Gathers tour, which included four tastings, with stops in between for cheese tasting, olive oil sampling, and a wine and chocolate pairing. Lunch was included, and we ended our day with a short tour of a local brewery and beer tasting. They also sent use home with a bottle of wine and a large bottle of beer. They do a great job of packing a lot into the day without making you feel rushed at any point.
As you might imagine, we tasted a lot of Shiraz. It probably wasn't as good as if we had gone to the Barossa Valley, but it was still fun. Semillon is the other varietal that is widely produced in the Hunter, and I discovered I don't really like Semillon all that much, as it's very tart and acidic. I did enjoy the late harvest Semillon, which was a little sweeter and more like a dessert wine. During our drives through wine country, we also spotted some "roos" and of course stopped to snap some photos. Aussies don't actually care for kangaroos too much...they are sort of like deer in the U.S., where they have a tendency to hop out in front of cars and do major damage. But to us, they were so cool!
Speaking of Australian wildlife, we decided to make one final pit stop at Featherdale Wildlife Park on our way back to Sydney before returning the rental car. My friend Brad recommended this, and it was a great call. While I'm sure the Taronga Zoo in Sydney is gorgeous...we only really cared about seeing some Australian animals up close, so this was perfect for us. Other advantages...it wasn't very crowded, it was less expensive than the zoo and it was very easy to see in less than two hours.
They have several koalas, and you can even get up close and pet one if you want. The caretakers are very patient, and will even offer to take your photo (and not care when you hand her two cameras and an iphone for two people). You can also buy kangaroo feed for just a dollar. The only drawback to this is the aggressive emus, who have figured out what's going on and will try to steal the food from you. (Hence...the truly frightened look on mom's face when the emu tried to snatch the cone right out of her hand). I also really liked the little penguins, which are native to Australia and New Zealand. The wombats were pretty cool too.
Despite a couple of scary and frustrating moments in the car, I had a lot of fun driving for this part of the trip. It allowed us to see a lot of things we wouldn't have seen otherwise, and it was an experience I'll never forget. Up next: Part III of my trip...which included the Whitsunday Islands and scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef! (And if you missed Part I, click here).