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Australia Archives

Cairns teems with backpackers, hostels, cheap hotels, dive centers, more backpackers, tourist shops, spas, coffee shops, yet more backpackers, faux-Irish pubs, nightclubs and the occasional additional backpacker. Pallavi sits just about at the top of the average age range for visitors to Cairns, and I felt very much like the creepy old man at the club. This didn't matter, of course, because we were there to dive the Great Barrier Reef, we stayed at a cheap tourist hotel instead of a party hostel, and we only incidentally took in the other attractions (and oddities) of Cairns. Nonetheless, we still managed to find Sydney-class drinks at Society, which I consider Cairns' finest bar.

The first thing you need to know about Society is that it is set up for youngish people looking to drink, dance and hook up. Decorated in a modern metal-and-plastic style, with only a bit of hard wood, the bar and the menu are ridiculously woo-girl friendly. The drinks veer heavily towards the sugar bomb: even their negronis are, as standard, mixed with a sweet syrup. Society is a product of its society.

That said, the bartenders can mix the classics, and enjoy showing off their skills when asked. They're also very friendly: one had spent a few years in Detroit, and he and I traded Michigan stories. Another wanted very much to try his hand in bars in the States, and we talked about what we thought might be the best markets for him. It's a shame that he probably won't be able to get a work permit: some fine bar in the States is currently missing a great employee.

As for the drinks, Society is quite creative with concoctions for the sweet-tooth set. Their absinthe-based signature drink manages to be sugary and yet not smother the strong anise flavors of its principal ingredient. On the other hand, Pallavi tried a yellowish concoction which captured the essence of a Starburst fruit chew in a glass. This drink almost doesn't taste alcoholic, which makes for one of those potions that every young girl's mother warned her about. These aren't normally my thing, but Society has elevated cocktail-as-sugar-delivery-mechanism to an art form. Don't drink too much, have plenty of water to ward off the almost inevitable hangover, and brush your teeth afterwards.

Here are a few pictures of strange and interesting signs that haven't really fit in any other entry.

An election poster, Lima, Peru (September 25, 2010):

Forgive my cynicism, but I somehow doubt that President Obama actually endorsed Dr. Davila.

A comment on my curious lawyer advertising post led me to FirmSpy. If for some reason you were ever looking for an Australian version of Above the Law, now you've found it.

Things Undone in Australia

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Aside from the shady neighborhoods like King's Cross in which we stayed, Sydney is the sort of city my mother, a partisan of Singapore and Dubai, would like: clean and pretty.


With the help of a pay-what-you-will tour, we saw a reasonable amount of it; we walked the Harbor and CBD, and I took the subway out to the suburb of Davidson in order to make a delivery from the original Galapagos post office. No doubt that a guidebook could find many more "must-do" holes than these, but the following are a few idiosyncratic regrets I have about our stay.

Scattershot of Thoughts on Leaving Sydney

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I'm writing this from the Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta, where we arrived last night after a 6-hour Qantas flight from Sydney. Tony will be posting more on this hotel, with pictures, but let me just say that this is by far the nicest place we have stayed on this trip -- without being the most expensive. If you want to party like a rockstar while on a symphony-violinist budget, Indonesia seems to be the place to do it, so long as you're not a rockstar who requires bacon in his Old Fashioned.

  • The Magnum Temptation chocolate ice cream bar heavily promoted in Australia and New Zealand, including a commercial featuring Benecio del Toro, nearly lives up to the hype. They even figured out how to keep the brownie chunks from being too hard despite being in a frozen dessert. Go Unilever!

  • Speaking of Unilever ice cream, the one "foodie" experience we had in Sydney was at the Food & Wine festival, where you buy tickets that entitle you to try some of the offerings from various restaurants and producers. The only free items I spotted were Ben & Jerry's and Yellowtail wine. In the entire time we spent in this region, I never saw a single drinks menu that featured either Yellowtail wine or Forster's beer. I suspect that whole "Australian for beer" slogan is a hoax perpetrated on the rest of the planet.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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As you tuck into your dinner, be thankful for many things. Including the fact that you don't have to feed your children like this:

IMG 0821

A parent frigate bird feeds its child, virtually swallowing the chick's head to keep the food safe

(Of course, it's Friday here in Australia, but it's still Thanksgiving back home.)

I don't understand why the back end of this bus should make me conclude that I need legal advice. Any thoughts on how I'm missing the joke? (Taken in Cairns, Australia.)


Pallavi is feeling a bit under the weather. While she catches a nap I'm sitting on a third-floor balcony writing a lengthy catch-up post about Lake Titicaca. The sun set about an hour ago, and the hotel lights are casting long shadows of palm trees over the pool and the courtyard patio below me.

A sudden shadow passes over my netbook monitor, so fast that I think for a moment that I misinterpreted a blink. The sound of wings makes me look up, but whatever bird passed by has flown over the roof, and I go back to writing. Then, only a moment later, the shadow passes by again.

So I stare out into the dark, looking for whatever nocturnal bird is hiding in the high reachs of the palms. Looking for feathers and an avian beak, I'm caught offguard when what drops from the trees, spreads cape-like wings and swoops into an ascent is a bat. A very, very big bat. A "Christopher Nolan, call your casting agent because this guy needs a role in your next movie" bat. About ten feet from my head it banks sharply upward, and I think I hear it thump on the roof above me.

Near the bottom of the welcome poster hanging on the back of the door, you see the comment "A sharps disposal bin is located near reception on the ground floor."

I'm sure they host a lot of diabetics.

Gotta run...

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We're heading up to the north coast of Australia early tomorrow morning, with the hope of doing some diving off the Great Barrier Reef. But in the mean time, some cuteness to distract you from the fact that we haven't updated in a while.


We spent our first few days at a backpacker hostel, but found that a small, local hotel a few blocks from Kings Cross offered cleaner, quieter accommodation at a lower price. It also happened to put us a few blocks away from some of Sydney's top cocktail bars, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. Once again, the weak greenback conspired to achieve what I would have thought impossible a few months ago: Sydney's cocktails are the most expensive of the trip, making the watering holes of San Francisco and New York look positively frugal by comparison.

Eau de Vie: Approach the austere glass doors of the stylish, sexy Kirketon Hotel, and glance at the beautiful people hanging out in the Art Lounge, and breeze past the bar as if going to the restrooms. [1] Keep going past the facilities, hang a left, and enter Eau de Vie, which presents itself as a domain for serious drinkers.

Have a few carrots before you go, however, because this bar isn't for the night-blind. A few candles and the occasional overhead light struggle valiantly against the gloom of this small, windowless space, and the dark wood and brown leather furniture is no help. The bar itself is far from well-lit, and if you choose a table in one of the further corners, you may need a flashlight to appreciate the small leatherbound volume that details the history of the club, the biographies of the bartenders, and, almost incidentally, a set of available drinks.

Although the ambiance cranks the pretentiousness up to 11, and the joint doesn't leaven this with the cheery kitsch of a Bourbon & Branch, you can't fault the drinks themselves. Don't go looking for classics. The menu is mostly new creations or old recipes with some form of "new twist." Although we felt the budget would only support one drink apiece (prices range from about AU$16 to AU$25), the two we tried were meticulously executed, well presented, and tasty. I recommend the Highlander Sazarac, a whiskey-based concoction that starts sweet and finishes smooth and smoky. (Upgrade to the Talisker: it's worth it.)

The Victoria Room: This Victoria Room was our Sydney splurge in an otherwise budget-conscious week, although neither drinks nor dinner were as wallet-busting as Eau de Vie. Although the VR doesn't look like much from the outside, once you walk up the stairs to the reception, it's a whole different world of hardwood and fine upholstery. If you don't have a reservation, don't worry: the best part of the evening may be sitting in the bar area until a table frees up.

For one thing, the bartenders are skilled, curious, and very, very friendly. While they'll happily make anything from the menu (again, leather-bound and weighty, with lengthy expository sections on the virtues of various spirits), they also welcome off-menu or "omakase" (bartender's choice) orders. I'd liked my first drink, but found it a bit too sweet, and the bartender cheerfully asked what I liked when I was elsewhere. This led to a quick conversation about the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and an experimental attempt at a new tequila classic that turned out surprisingly well.

Once you're done at the bar, the Victoria Room's food is pretty good as well. All dishes are meant to be shared by the table, and if you're price-conscious, get the mezze platter. It's the best bread and dip we've had south of the equator, and the portions are more than generous.

[1] Although always well put together, the stylish set vastly outdressed our "nice night out" traveling outfits on Tuesday night. It was the evening after the Melbourne Cup, and patrons had dressed accordingly.

Just another one of our places to stay posts. I'll update this with new accommodations as we encounter them. (One of these days I'm going to cross-post these reviews to TripAdvisor.)


Note for cheap and cheerful places to stay in Sydney: the hostels and internet options are not always the best deals. I recommend booking online so that you have someplace to stay for the first few nights (until you're past jetlag) and then wandering around on foot. It's how Pallavi found The Royal Sovereign.

The Funk House Hostel: Stay here if you are: (a) in your early or mid-twenties, (b) on a budget, (c) appreciative of the finest in trippy graffiti-style wall murals, and (d) want to meet others who are (a)-(c). The Funk House will provide a free ride from the airport (valuable, though you may wait an hour or so for the shuttle). As hostels go it's decidedly mid-range, and a bit more "party hostel" than our normal habit. The double rooms are clean and spartan, though the bathrooms are grim. My main problem with this hostel was its decidedly dictatorial character: every surface seemed to be covered with some dictate:

  • No visitors. [1]
  • Rooms will be cleaned at noon every day, so make the room available for cleaning.
  • Any items left on the floor of your room (other than under the bed) are assumed to be trash and may be thrown away.

To make matters worse, the manager's voice frequently pipes up over the intercoms in the hallway, sort of Big Brother meets Lord of the Flies, reminding inmates... erm, guests of their responsibilities. Perhaps this kind of maintenance of order is necessary at a party hostel, but places like The Secret Garden manage it without such an overbearing attitude.

The Royal Sovereign : Simple, unpretentious rooms with shared bathrooms a few blocks south of Kings Cross down Darlinghurst Road. The Royal Sovereign isn't really a hotel, but a set of rooms above a pub. As such, it's not suitable for those wishing to get to bed before midnight. Once the pub shuts the entire area quiets down, so sleep was not a problem for us. No-frills and the beds are pancake-thin, but room are cleaned daily, fresh towels are provided, and the rates are cheaper than doubles at the Kings Cross hostels. The only downside: the bathrooms and showers have lights on a 15-minute timer, so long showers can involve fumbling for a light switch in the dark. While we were there, two of the three bathroom lights weren't set properly, and would only light for fifteen seconds or so before turning themselves off.

[1] Actually, this is probably sensible given that Kings Cross is, among other things, Sydney's red light district.

She booked us tickets for a play concerning profane puppets and income tax law.

Our jump to Sydney was our first transcontinental shift of the international trip, and it has been a bit of an adjustment. In Argentina, a thousand dollars covered a month's rent at good apartment in Recoleta, one of Buenos Aires' most fashionable neighborhoods. As every Australian helpfully tells you these days, the greenback is now at parity with the Aussie dollar, and as result a double room at a rough hostel in Kings Cross is about three times the price of our beloved apartment. Thus, we go from comfortable and fashionable expats one week to proper cost-conscious backpackers the next. I imagine this will happen a couple of times this year.

We intentionally punctuated our trip, which mostly makes its way through budget-friendly and exotic countries like Ecuador and Peru, with a few weeks in more expensive nations. The expectation was that the costlier countries would give us a chance to outfit ourselves with items not available elsewhere. For instance, I am hoping to pick up a pair of high quality sandals either here or in New Zealand, as the (very cheap) pair that I purchased a week and a half ago in Puerto Madryn are already falling apart.

Some things that you might not expect to be hard to find turn out to be inconceivable in certain countries. For instance, women in South America apparently wax or use
depilatory cream on their legs: women's shaving cream is nowhere to be found. Likewise, the newer men's razors are not on offer.

Another major difference between Australia and Argentina partially accounts for our lack of frequency in posting. In Buenos Aires, just about every bar, coffeehouse, hostel or other freestanding structure likely to host tourists is likely to have free wireless internet access. Sydney is far less welcoming: most hostels require some hourly fee for wireless access, if it is available at all, and coffee shops with wifi are few on the ground. Indeed, the big venue for free wifi is the Kings Cross Mickey D's, and it bustles 24-7 with a LAN party's worth backpackers working at their notebooks and iPhones.

Wednesday will put us in New Zealand, though we will be back in Australia later this month. Although the plan is subject to change, we are thinking of renting a camper van and heading through the countryside. It may take a while to post them, but we hope to have some good pictures.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like