10th -15th October   Sydney

Flying from Cairns to Sydney we have a five day whistle stop tour of the clean and compact city, the capital in terms of culture and finance.  We manage to find an amazing deal at a 5 star hotel in Circular Quay at half the price of a hostel!  Luxurious, complete with a huge balcony and phenomenal views over the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, we can’t believe our luck!

The Sydney food festival is on so we head over to Hyde Park and the nightly noodle market; the park is crowded with people and there are huge queues for most of the stalls.   On route we visit St. Mary’s Cathedral; it’s beautiful, recently restored, with amazing stained glass windows and a golden sandstone interior.

After a delicious three-course breakfast we take a walk through the botanical gardens and spot the huge grey-headed flying foxes hanging upside down in the low branches of a tree.

The walk takes us on to the spectacular Opera House which opened in 1973 and finished with over 1 million tiles, followed by a leisurely walk across the iconic steel harbour bridge aka the ‘coat hanger’ before stopping for drinks at The Rocks to cool us down! As dinner for four is also included for one night, we head back to the hotel and indulge!

Deciding to side-step the expensive cruises but still take in the dramatic natural harbour views, we jump on a ferry to Manly, on a narrow peninsula a few miles away from the city centre; the beach is peaceful and picturesque as we take a walk down the scenic walkway to the headland finding a small bay at the end.

In the evening, we meet up with friends for drinks and dinner.  It’s a beautiful sunny day so we take the opportunity to get on board the city bus tour which keeps us entertained for the day, taking us past the Queen Victoria building, King’s Cross, Central Station and Kings Street wharf jumping off at the famous and packed Sydney fish market for some classic barramundi and chips.  After lunch we take the Bondi tour taking us past Chinatown, Bondi beach and Rose bay.

We head down to Darling Harbour to the Chinese gardens and wander around the National Maritime museum taking in the history.  In the evening we try to find a reasonably priced restaurant in Circular Quay, eventually finding a small Italian with fabulous night views over the illuminated bridge and Opera House.  A perfect way to end our time in Sydney!

15th-16th October    Port Stephens

The two and a half hour drive to the harbour region of Port Stephens north of Sydney takes us along Nelson Bay road, turning off at the Pacific Ocean highway.  On route, we stop at the Port Stephens winery for the first of many tasting tours, before relaxing in the gardens listening to a live band playing outside in the courtyard.

The next morning we head to Nelsons Point Lighthouse and tea rooms wandering through the museum with artefacts from its previous use as a lighthouse.  There are striking panoramic views over the bay and offshore islands.  A hot thirty minute trek up the paved footway takes us to Stephens Point, and the Tomaree headland lookout which is well worth the effort for the stunning views it affords.

We carry on to One Mile Beach, a circular stretch of white sands then straight on to Anna Bay, filled with kite surfers and even a line of camels heading to the shoreline.  The bay is backed by the Stockton Bight sand dunes.  At 32km long stretching all the way to Newcastle they are the longest moving sand dunes in the southern hemisphere.

It’s just a shame we don’t have our 4×4 with us to access the sand dunes.  Finally we head to the Gan Gan lookout for more stunning 360 degree views over the bay.

17th-19th October   The Hunter valley

From the coast we head towards wine country, the cooler inland air and the green vineyards of the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine regions.  We are based in Pokolbin Village where most of the first vineyards were planted in the area, and spend most of our time driving around the 140 wineries in the area, testing the different varieties and buying our favourites!

We go on a couple of wine tours where we are taken through the process of making wine from vine to bottle, dodging the territorial swooping magpies who fly inches from our heads as we make our way through!

Sculpture in the Vineyards is on so we combine wine tasting with a walk through the rolling picturesque countryside viewing the various sculptures on display.  We follow the Wollombi valley wine trail, starting at Stonehurst cedar creek finishing at the Undercliff winery a wobbly three hours later.

20th-21st October    Port Macquarie

Travelling north we arrive in the laid back city of Port Macquarie, and take a coastal drive past Oxley beach, Rocky beach, Flynns and Nobbys beach, each one with white sands and sparkling waters. Stopping at one of the lookouts, a guy with a mounted telescope tells us he is keeping a track on the humpback whales passing through the port.  Not wanting to miss the once in a lifetime opportunity, he phones base for us and we follow him back into town, ready for a spontaneous adventure on a whale watching trip!  Before we know it, we have our life jackets on and are sitting in a RIB. We head out of the harbour mouth where huge waves are rolling in.

We are really lucky to have the RIB all to ourselves as it flies over the waves bouncing us around; it’s exhilarating and we haven’t even seen any whales yet!  We see a lot of other bigger, more expensive looking boats which seem to be overcrowded.

15 minutes later we are in deeper waters, at which point the engine stops.  We hope to catch just a glimpse of the majestic creatures.  Within a few minutes, the boat driver suddenly points to our right and we see a mother and her calf moving just metres away from us.  We can’t believe we have seen them and moving so close to the boat!  Mother and calf are absolutely awesome, the pair travelling together over 50,000kms, one is colossal at around 15m long and 50 years old and the other 4m long and just a few weeks old!

The whales make the hard migration from the freezing waters off Antarctica, as the temperature falls and ice sheets covers the sea, to the Australian coast where they mate and give birth, before heading back to their Antarctic summer feeding grounds where they have access to a rich supply of krill.   The whales are believed to use landmarks for navigation which draws them so close to the coast, and also keeps them away from predators. Having the chance to follow alongside these gentle giants of the sea on their journey back to the Antarctic is such a privilege.

Another whale appears out of the blue, and all three flick up their tails in unison, before one then leaps straight out of the water. Wow, it truly is amazing!

They appear to be very inquisitive coming closer and closer to the boat.  Unbelievably, one actually goes right under the boat, literally close enough to reach out and touch.  The shiny leathery skin of the enormous whale is crisscrossed with scars.  One of them surfaces just inches from thefront of the boat, and makes Martin jump…   Any closer and it’s quite possible that all 50,000kgs of whale would have caused our RIB to somersault!

They roll over and spurt water from their blow holes, seeming to put on an acrobatic show for us! Reluctant to leave we head back over the waves to the wharf, still reeling from the incredible experience we have just had!

Back on dry land, we head over to a performance which is on at the local theatre, The Glasshouse before going to the Koala hospital.  The hospital takes in sick and injured koalas, mainly from motor vehicle accidents and dog attacks.

We follow a volunteer around who explains each individual koala’s story; they are so cute and placid, just hanging out in the gum trees within the hospital grounds.

22nd-28th October    Cairns and Port Douglas

Landing in Cairns we pick up the car and drive to our hotel in Palm Cove, a quiet beach to the north of the city.  We take a boat out to the Great Barrier Reef where we spend the day on the reef snorkelling.  We also get on the Skytrain railway over the Daintree forest, gliding just metres over the tropical rainforest canopy, passing over the Barron River and Falls and stop in the market village of Kuranda for lunch.  The sprawling markets sell everything from painted didgeridoos to incense sticks.

Our last port of call is Port Douglas, an hour’s drive north of Cairns on a spectacular coastal road.  We take a guided crocodile spotting boat ride down the picturesque Daintree River and see everything from snakes and large river birds to baby crocs bobbing near the water’s edge and the elusive estuarine crocodile, the giant 4 metre, hundred year old Spartacus.

We also drive the Daintree coast through the ancient rainforest, home to the endangered cassowary.   There are signs for the big bird everywhere but unfortunately we don’t spot any.  On route, we stop at interesting points along the way including the Daintree ice cream company, surrounded by jackfruit, durian, mango and breadfruit trees, and Alexandra lookout with sweeping views over the Daintree river delta to the Coral Sea.

A day at Hartleys crocodile adventures is spent watching the crocs being fed, death roll demonstrations, jumping crocs, shows with crazy or brave rangers in a pool with the deadly saltwater crocs and river cruises.

With the sun going down on another day, we decide to head back for a siesta before a final dinner at Salsa.  Thanks for coming to see us Mum and Dad, hope you enjoyed yourselves!

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