Thursday, July 31, 2008


We took a train from Sydney to Newcastle, which was a pretty scenic ride for the most part. Newcastle is about 2 1/2 hours north of Sydney via train, and it's an old coal town which is trying to revitalize itself as something young and hip. To some extent they are succeeding, but it's currently an odd mix of ghetto and swank. When we arrived at the train station, we walked outside to the taxi stand area where we watched one taxi pull away and then waited about 10 minutes for another taxi to show up. I thought that the taxi stand would have taxis lined up waiting for passengers; but, then again, we did seem to be the only people actually standing around looking for a, I guess everything was doled out proportionately. My husband went in search of some information, and we found out that our hotel was within walking distance, so we started hoofing it. While we were waiting for the taxi, I took this picture:

We stayed at the Crown Plaza Hotel Newcastle. As we were approaching the property, I was skeptical. It was on the water's edge (swank!) in this industrial port town (shetto!), but it turned out to be quite lovely. Our room was a nice one-bedroom with a little kitchenette area and a view of the waterfront, sort of. After we unpacked we grabbed some lunch and then walked along the waterfront, past the lighthouse at Nobby's Head, down to the end of the pier where we sat on a pile of rubble (ghetto) for a while watching a seal play in the water (nature-imposed swank). Every once in a while we saw whale spouts in the distance, and we watched all kinds of sea-faring vessels going in and out of the harbor. It had been a bit rainy and cold when we arrived, but it turned out to be a lovely sunny day. That night we ate at the near-by BWP (which stands for Blue Water Pizza) which had great food and very friendly staff. I ate an entire pizza all by myself.

On the news that night, I learned that the Pope is affectionately known as "B16." I don't know if this is an Australian thing or something that is sweeping the world, but I wondered if the Pope was aware of this nickname and, if so, if he approved or not. Again, as with the flags-as-capes situation, I'm a little conflicted; it's nice to see the Pope as approachable and that people are referring to him affectionately, but he's THE POPE. Is nothing sacred anymore? I mean, really, when it's ok to be casual about the Pope, what's left?

For the rest of the week, my husband was working, so I pretty much wandered around the town, spent a day washing laundry in our sink (underwear, socks, tank tops) (self-imposed ghetto), and took a ferry ride. The wandering around town part took me to Darby Street which is where all the restaurants are. Everything we ate in Newcastle was great and also quite expensive. The cheapest thing I ever found was a noodle house where the small portions were around $6 or $7. Other than that, everything starts at about $20. This is what we can't quite figure out about Newcastle. At night, there is definitely a young, hip vibe going on in the swanky new part of town (where we were staying) and on Darby Street. There are a lot of people coming out and spending a lot of money, but we're not sure where any of it is coming from. Newcastle is a coal town, so unless these are all kids whose grandparents made millions in the coal business, where are all these people getting all this money to go out and blow $25-$50/night on food, not on drinks and food, just food? Maybe their parents all own restaurants. Anyway, like I said, everything was good, but we ate twice at Anacapri and both times it was wonderful.

As I was wandering around Darby Street, I kept seeing signs saying "The Obelisk." I decided to follow them and see what this obelisk was all about. Turns out it' obelisk. Who woulda thunk? It looks just like the Washington Monument only smaller and whiter. It's on top of a hill and there's a great view of the city from up there. As I was climbing up the super steep streets that lead to the obelisk, I noticed that you cannot live here and be a bad parallel parker, at least not in the steep-street neighborhoods. There is no messing around with the parallel parking here.

Once I reached the obelisk, I knew I was there by the nice signage(bottom right corner).

I was really impressed with the signage. It was all on street signs and everywhere I needed to turn, there was a sign. I didn't need a map or anything, and for me that's saying something. From the obelisk I walked to Strzelecki Lookout which was listed on my map as a scenic lookout. (I didn't say I didn't HAVE a map, I just said I didn't NEED a map.) Turns out it is also the jumping off point, literally, for the local hang gliders and paragliders. They just walk off the hill and swoop up into the sky! Go to Air Sports' home page and watch their videos of people taking off-they did a much better job with the photography than I was able to do! It was really cool to watch and a nice surprise at the top of the hill as well. If we had been there through the weekend we could have gone on a tandem hang glide, which I think would have been cool, but we didn't have the time, what with our pending wine tour and all.

As I was walking back to the hotel I walked past a lot of houses that were for sale. The Aussies don't fool around with their For Sale signs. They're these huge signs, probably 4' X 6' and they have a big color picture of the property with the address and other pertinent information like how many bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. They don't list the price, however, which I guess is fair. You have to call the realtor for that kind of info.

One day I stopped in Newcastle's local library which also houses the Lovett Gallery. I almost didn't stop in, but I'm glad I did. They were displaying the winning entries from the 2007 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and they were amazing. This picture was in the downstairs entry, and as soon as I walked in and saw it, I knew I had to go upstairs and see what else they had.

On another occasion I took the ferry across the channel to Stockton to see the Shipwreck Walk. At one time Newcastle was a very dangerous place if you were trying to navigate a boat through its waters, and lots of ships ended up wrecked off its shores. They finally built a breakwater, and they incorporated one of the wrecked hulks into the sea wall, so I wanted to see that. I sort of over dramatized it in my mind. I thought I would turn a corner, and there would be a whole beach full of wrecked ships, their monstrous carcases towering over me as they stood watch over the shores, keeping them safe...from other dangerous ships...or pirates or something. I'm not sure why I thought this; the brochure that I had showed a picture of the ship in its place in the breakwater and pretty clearly explained what the situation was. I guess I just got excited. I've never seen a wrecked ship on land before. Apparently I am a carnage junkie. So, while I was a little disappointed that I only got to see one wrecked ship, I still enjoyed my 3-minute ferry ride over to Stockton and my walk to the end of the pier and back.

It's hard to see, but there is also a bird on one of the rocks with his wings outstretched, sunning himself. See how artsy I am?

Another thing I did in Newcastle that I have never done before is I went to a spa to have my legs and bikini area waxed. We were getting ready to jump on a live-aboard dive boat, and I didn't think I wanted to be trying to shave at sea. Just down from our hotel was a lovey little spa called Sugar Suite. Emma, who is possibly the teeniest and most adorable person ever, was my aesthetician and she was so sweet! I walked in and was trying to work an appointment out for the next day, but the times they had available weren't really what I was hoping for, but they were workable. She was at the counter and said that she could get me in at 8:00 that night if I wanted to come back, which worked out much better for me. She gave me champagne and a little fruit plate when I got there (I'm pretty sure that's part of her job, but still.) As she was viciously ripping out all of my hair, we chatted as though nothing traumatic were going on south of my navel and she made some recommendations about local attractions and then wrote everything down for me later so I wouldn't forget. And now we come to my conundrum. Tipping is not really the norm in Australia, and from what I hear it's kind of pissing them off that we Americans keep coming in and tipping everybody because now people are starting to expect it. They had a good thing going and we're screwing it up. I'd be pissed too. I think they do tip in restaurants, but I'm not sure where else, if anywhere, they tip. So, do I tip for my spa service or not? Emma and I had been talking earlier about how you have to be sensitive when you are visiting other cultures and should make an effort to play by their rules, and here I was, a hairy American coming in and foisting tips on people who aren't expecting them and are not happy about the prospect of other people becoming accustomed to them. Emma stayed late to accommodate me, she went out of her way to be helpful with tourist information, and she handled all my bikini-area hair, something I don't even want to do for myself let alone for someone else. I decided that some things are just worth the tip, customary or not. Emma protested and assured me that it wasn't expected, but I insisted. So, if you're ever in Newcastle and need some spa services, ask for Emma and while you're enjoying your treatment tell her I'm sorry about messing with their gratuity system.

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