Thursday, 30 July 2009

Melbourne medley

After raving about Darwin, I felt that I've not done enough justice to the other Aussie cities. Afterall I've had nothing but good experiences in Australia so far. It's a perfect place for a family vacation and my kids have been urging me to take them on another trip soon. Maybe we'll try somewhere new like Tasmania or Adelaide.

It was chilly when we arrived in Melbourne five years ago during their december school vacation. We stayed at a friend's posh Southbank apartment overlooking the Yarra river which meanders through the city. Her all-glass apartment, situated in close promixy to the Crown Casino, offers a panoramic view of the skyline, which glitters like a million stars at night.

Whilst Darwin is fascinating, Melbourne is posh and charming. There are a million things to do. From trendy cafes to chic boutiques, shady parks to elegant Victorian-era streetscapes, glitzy casinos to Manhattan-style skyscapers, it is indeed a city with something for everyone.

It was a holiday for the kids, naturally the itinerary centered around kid-friendly activities. At that time, YK was 12 years old and SK just turned 10. We had a good laugh when we visited the Melbourne Zoo. They had specially brought in elephants as special Asian exhibits. We felt like we were in our Singapore Zoo!

The highlight was the beautiful butterfly park. The kids had started a butterfly garden at home and were whooping with joy upon seeing many exotic species at the zoo. They spent all afternoon in the enclosure until I was bored to tears!

While the boys were gazing at butterflies, my friend and I sat at the alfresco cafe for a cuppa. A small plane was writing words in the sky!

Another day was spent at the animal sanctuary outside the city. The native animals in Melbourne are furry and cute, nothing like the fearsome ones I encountered in Darwin. The baby sheep, koalas, kangaroos and wallabies appeal to children.

Melbourne is famous for its lavish parks, gardens and waterways providing pockets of calm and tranquillity in the middle of the bustling city. We were greeted by gorgeous flowers and shrubs everywhere we went.

We went out to the countryside to visit a lavender farm. If I remember correctly, this was a new farm set up by a French man who fell in love with the charming countryside and decided to setup home. As we trotted along the lilac fields, the air was awashed in the scent of lavender.

We were charmed by the smart farm dog that followed his owner everywhere. He was like the farm's mascot!

One of our favourite activities in Melbourne was strawberry picking at Mornington Peninsula. Armed with a punnet, we set off in search of big ripe strawberries. SK couldn't resist popping one into his mouth.

The gourmet stall at the farm sells a huge array of cookies, jams, preserves and chocolates. We bought some chocolate dip to eat with our freshly picked strawberries. Yum!

Next stop was Ashcombe Maze, Australia's oldest and largest traditional hedge maze. It took us a while to find our way out of the maze. It wasn't as easy as it looked.

Besides the amazing maze, the other attractions on this 25-acre property include a restaurant where we had lunch, themed gardens, a smaller rose maze and abundant water features.

In the evening, we set off to Phillip Island Nature Park, home for one of the largest colonies of Little Penguins. Each evening at Summerland Beach, the Little Penguins return from the sea and make their way to their burrows.

We crouched by the viewing platform, squinting our eyes and straining our neck to catch sight of the first penguin walking in. Just as the little penguins started to cross the beach and walk under the elevated boardwalk, the skies open up and started raining. Everyone dashed back to the shelter to escape from the rain and bitterly cold wind. The penguins must be happy to find some privacy at last.

Melbourne boasts of great events, a passion for food and wine and a fabulous arts scene. We couldn't help but indulge the entire week we were there. I loved the vibrant markets and abundance of seafood and fresh farm produce.

While the kids were entralled by the games at the markets and spent hours watching confectioners making rock candy by hand, I was drooling over the luscious cakes and tarts at the famous patisseries.

One of my favourite places in Melbourne must be St Kilda Beach. On Sundays, the suburb comes alive as some of Victoria’s best artists and craftspeople gather to sell their crafts at The Esplanade Market. If not for the kids, I could spend all day there, admiring the creative works!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Fascinating Darwin

There was a time (not so long ago) when I was bitten by the travel bug. Maybe it was the lack of responsibilities (as we were living with my parents), I was jetting off to a new location every few months, sometimes alone but mostly with the kids or friends. My favourite traveling companion is CH because he's easy going and tolerant, he never barks at me or give me grief.

That intrepid spirit in me seemed to have abated lately. These days, I'm quite happy reminiscing instead of jumping on the next plane. This morning, I found myself thinking about a place.

I've visited Australia many times but the one city I find most fascinating is Darwin. Not Melbourne or Perth or even the Sunshine Coast, but Darwin! I know I'm weird but Darwin appeals to a nature lover like me.

It all started with the cheap airfare. Then as I was looking for a place to stay, I found Frogs Hollow and imagined falling asleep to a chorus of green tree frogs. I was sold!

Within a week, I was dragging CH along on our little adventure to Darwin, a vibrant destination renowned for its tropical climate and colourful characters. Apparently it has the most youthful population in Australia, which gives it a distinctly optimistic vibe.

That must be why I'm drawn to Darwin. I like places with good vibes! The all-year round balmy and sultry weather is also another plus of course. I like basking in the sun.

Frogs Hollow turned out to be a laid-back kind of hangout for backpackers. The facilities are basic. We spent our days exploring the city on foot and soaking in the pool at night.

We jumped on the public bus several times to visit the open air markets scattered around the city. The Parap weekend market was bustling with stalls and activity when we arrived on a Saturday morning. It's the perfect destination to sample a smorgasbord of Asian dishes and pick up some locally made arts and crafts.

Lots of Asian Food.

Locally designed clothes in all shapes and sizes, even miniature ones.

I bought this for my niece.

In the evenings, we immersed ourselves in the lively atmosphere of the Mindil Beach Sunset market. Besides a large variety of food, we were treated to performances from artists, a variety of street theatre and circus acts.

The city is easy to navigate on foot and there is no shortage of scenic areas and open spaces to explore. We walked through the Botanic Gardens and stopped for a picnic under the big shady trees.

In the Tropical Summer, almost everything is done outside – eating, drinking, shopping and movie-going. When the sky darkened, we took at peek at the open air deckchair cinema but didn't want to spend precious time watching an old movie.

Right in the heart of Darwin at Doctors Gully, is Aquascene, where hundreds of fish come to shore at high tide to be fed by hand. We arrived at sunset to find mullets coming ashore to meet excited visitors armed with bread.

Feeding frenzy.

Visitors are allowed to wade into the water to touch and feed the fishes like mullet, catfish, rays, cod, diamond fish and parrot fish.

Darwin is also the gateway to some of Australia's best-known national parks and tropical outback landscapes. We took a day trip south of Darwin to explore Litchfield National Park, swim in crystal-clear waterholes, touch creepy animals and see many wild things.

While CH was busy wrapping himself around snakes, I stood a mile away, fearing for my life.

The water buffaloes covered themselves in mud to keep cool.

Our guide, who's half aboriginal, leapt out of the tour bus and returned with a large frilled lizard. As he passed it around happily, I was cowering with fear. I hate reptiles!

Despite my fear of reptiles, we had close encounters with numerous huge crocodiles that day. The murky river is just teeming with them on the prowl for food.

Luring the crocs with chunks of meat.

They may be big, but they can certainly leap!

A trip to Darwin isn't complete until you've explored the wetland wilderness steeped in Aboriginal culture and natural beauty. Litchfield National Park contains several types of typical Top End habitats including lush monsoon forests, termite mounds, unusual rock formations, waterfalls and cascades.

The Park’s traditional owners are the Wagait Aboriginal people, many of whom live in the area mostly surrounded by magnificent cliffs.

We had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear rock pools surrounded by lush greenery.

Along the way, we stopped by to admire the fascinating magnetic termite mounds endemic to this area.

Magnetic termite mounds rising to as much as three metres or more in height are shaped like slabs rising out of the ground with their flat sides facing east and west. The thin ends are thus on a north-south axis, giving rise to the term "magnetic."

Rather than being influenced by magnetic forces, the mounds are actually so well crafted that their flat, broad sides, and hence the mounds themselves, do not catch too much heat from the sun during the hottest part of the day.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Old habits die hard

Finally life is humming along nicely again. I'm back to my usual sleeping routine. The dog gets his walks and the kids are eating wholesome dinners again.

Well, they were very satisfied with dinner last night even though it was a very simple one featuring mainly greens like bean sprouts/shitake mushroom, sambal kangkong, dou miao (young sprouts) and asparagus/sliced fish. They have been brought up on a simple diet from young, so they're easy to please. The fact that they prefer vegetables and seafood over meat makes my job alot easier.

My parents brought us up this way too. Being Teochew, we always had lots of vegetables and steamed fish at the dinner table. Teochew specialties like braised duck, ngoh hiang (meat rolls) and steamed crab would make an appearance on special ocassions. Dinner would only begin when everyone was seated round the dining table. Dad came home for dinner every night without fail.

It dawned on me that I am indeed quite traditional. From the Teochew cuisine to the way I sit round the dinner table with the kids, it's like a scene out of my own childhood.

In fact, the kids are so used to this lifestyle that on days when I can't have dinner at home with them, they feel like something is amiss.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Belgian food and beer

Four consecutive nights of inadequate sleep finally took a toll on my body. I was like a zombie yesterday. After my eyelids became too heavy for me to do any productive work, I left the office to snatch a nap so I don't run the risk of falling asleep at a birthday party later at night.

The group met at Brussels Sprouts, a chic Belgian Bar & Bistro, to celebrate Patricia's birthday and CH's belated birthday. Naturally we had Belgian food and beer. Even the wall is decorated with the famous Belgian character Tintin and his dog Snowy!

In case you're wondering, the vegetable brussels sprouts is nowhere to be found on the menu. The birthday girl, who is a vegetarian, had a platter of cheese, lots of olives, salad and fries.

Patricia (on the left) and Christiane.

Marinated olives with lime, chilli, herb de Provence and olive oil.

The rest of us treated ourselves to sinful food like glazed pork belly scented with ginger, chilli, star anise served with braised red cabbage and caramelised apple. It was DELICIOUS! So tender and full of flavour.

Most of us ordered the famous Belgian specialty - mussels and fries. Here at Brussels Sprouts, you can choose to have your mussels cooked in a multitude of ways including Asian styles like Tom Yum or devilled curry.

Mine was cooked in a cream sauce (A L'ardennaise) with ham, leek, butter, cream, onion, parsley and mushroom.

A pot of steaming hot mussels.

We were all given a bucket of fries which was so addictive especially when dipped in the creamy mussel stock.

The birthday girl was showered with presents. A lovely cake was brought out as another round of beer was ordered.

I couldn't stay up late on a weekday and had to leave the gang behind. It was a wise move of course because I no longer feel like a zombie today.

Sunday, 26 July 2009


It's Monday morning and I'm Exhausted! It has been a hectic weekend afterall.

Here's a rundown of the events, starting from dinner on Friday at a zhi-char stall tucked away in Tanjong Rhu. According to the owner, they've been in business for a long time which explains the crowd. The food is good and prices are very reasonable.

The hae chor (minced pork and prawn rolls) was fragrant and tasty, though the texture is quite different from the ones I make at home. I like my fillings chunky with more bite. The ones served here is slightly pasty like they've added yam inside.

I like this interesting dish, stewed duck thigh in lotus leaf. For only $12, the portion is generous and good enough for our group of 4. The meat was stewed until very tender. I found pieces of chestnuts and mushrooms inside too. Very delicious!

The sambal crab was nice too, slightly better than the normal chilli crab because of the addition of fragrant sambal.

We were so stuffed after dinner, even Chris' suggestion of durian for dessert didn't tempt anyone of us. Instead we ended up in a dark Middle Eastern cafe in Arab Street called Ambrosia. It was a mistake actually. The drinks that we ordered tasted so weird, we had to force ourselves to drink up the icy concoctions. Maybe that inspired us to make a pact to go hiking the next morning.

EY and I with our disgusting drinks!

SATURDAY was spent hiking at Macritchie Reservoir along the Treetop Trail. Though we were blessed with good weather, the air in the forest was heavy and humid, we worked up a good sweat.

My camera lens was foggy after nestling next to my ice cold water bottle, giving the photos a soft edge. I quite like this effect.

Some of the trees in the forest are really old and massive!

Tall bamboo cluster framing the trail.

A question mark?

This slow moving monitor lizard's stomach was bloated. It had just swallowed a prey.

Heading towards the treetop walk.

Lovely view from the top. Tree canopy and the reservoir in the distance.

The macaques were so bold and came so close towards us.

SUNDAY was a rather exciting one. I got up at 5am to get ready for the launch of our gardening products at the funfair. It was an interesting experience. The fair was a huge success and we managed to sell all our products within 5 hours. Huier, my blog reader, even came by to visit, bringing a box of Cedele muffins. She's so sweet!

Best friend and I in our apron.

We roped in CH to help.

Fund raising is hard work!

The boyfriend's so sweet! He bought her a planter box of vegetables for the windowsill at her university hostel.

Nonya lady selling traditional Nonya kueh (cakes).

The stall opposite ours was selling shoes and handicrafts designed by kids from the special school.

The satay stall was one of the most popular ones there. It filled the entire church ground with smoke and smells of barbequed meat.

A young gardener with green thumb.

We donated all our proceeds to the church.

These 2 friends came by our stall. Seeing them so interested but with insufficient funds, I gave them a huge discount. Afterall, our aim is to promote gardening amongst kids.

We sold everything before the funfair came to a close. The entire exercise was an eye-opener, we learned that retail business is hardwork and left the place feeling exhausted and thirsty.

Last night, we were back at best friend's house again for a celebratory dinner. The food was good and the mood was excellent!

The three Amigos.