Sunday, February 18, 2018

February 16th and 17th – Cuisine, Culture and Company in Melbourne

Coming straight after Burnie, I guess that most cities would seem like exciting cultural centres, but Melbourne was definitely the real deal. Over the course of two glorious days here, we were treated to fabulous cuisine, cosmopolitan cultures, atmospheric historic architecture, soaring modern buildings, high quality artwork and superb beaches – it was close to the complete urban package.

As it was the first day of Chinese New Year, Chinatown was the place to head to, to experience the vibrant melting pot that modern Melbourne haa become. Every restaurant was full to the brim with celebrating Chinese families, so we were lucky to get into the Bamboo House for what turned out to be one of the best Chinese meals I've ever had – lots of delicate flavours really well presented.

We worked off all this food by feasting on the wonderful collection of the National Gallery Victoria – which has the best collection of European renaissance art in Australia (probably in the whole Southern Hemisphere). When you looked at the array Rembrandts, Memlings, Titians and Van Dyks (amongst many other luminaries), many of them had "Felton Bequest" written next to them. Alfred Felton was an Englishman who made his fortune in the Victoria Gold Rush, and left the NGV an acquisition fund that's greater than that of London's National and Tate Galleries combined. With excellent timing, this was then used to buy up much of the art put up for sale from the Hermitage by the Bolshevik government after the October Revolution. Money well spent.

Of course, Melbourne continues to be a wealthy city with a sense of taste, so we did a bit of shopping and stopped in for a drink in one of the many pavement cafes; before sampling the cuisine of another of its major ethnic groups – Greek this time. Melbourne claims to be the city with the biggest number of Greeks outside of Athens, but seeing as there isn't a "Greektown" here (maybe the whole city is one big Greek town?), we went to Chinatown again to visit a restaurant called Kri Kri to get all the flavours of Athens (although washed down with Tasmanian beer). Aussie beer, in a Greek restaurant, in Chinatown – sums up cosmopolitan Melbourne.

The next day was all about appreciating one element of Melbourne life that often gets overlooked – its beaches. Of course, Melbourne's gentle bay beach can't quite compare with the glorious surf beaches of Sydney; but, on a sunny day when you see its long line of golden sands, then it looks pretty good to me. Actually, there were loads of life-saving and volleyball competitions going on, and I can honestly say that I have never felt so old, pale, fat and out-of-condition when compared to the youthful, tanned, and toned athletes all around us.

But, in an attempt to get a bit fitter, we were at least inspired to go for a lovely 14km walk along the coast from Port Melbourne and past the resort area of St Kilda. This left us time to meet up with a couple of old friends for lunch and to explore a little bit of Port Melbourne's relaxed atmosphere too.

It's not difficult to see why Melbourne has been judged the "World's Most Liveable City" by the Economist Magazine. What a great place!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 15th – Nut Cracked in "Rainie Burnie"

After 2 days getting buffeted in the windy Tasman Sea, then one day getting bashed around in the horribly rough Bass Strait, we were glad to see sight of land, no matter what it looked like. In fact, landfall was coming in the form of one of the more unfashionable cruise ports in this part of the world – the small port of Burnie, on Tasmania's wind-lashed northwestern coast.

First impressions weren't the most exciting, as we were greeted by depressingly grey skies and a fairly unimpressive post-industrial view of town. A gigantic pile of woodchips lay on the dockside; a rusting old paper mill lay disused in the distance; while the waterside was cut off from town by a large railway junction. All these things are reminder that this is a town in recovery – firstly from a century of heavy industry and pollution, and secondly from a couple of decades of industrial collapse and high unemployment.

However, Burnie is trying hard to re-invent itself, as it attempts to become a creative centre, and it works to attract a cruise industry that was previously unaware of its "attractions" – in fact, today was the first time that two ships would be in town at once, so they must be doing something right. And, what its fairly prosaic town centre lacks in character, it makes up for in the enthusiasm of the tourist industry and its guides – everywhere you went, someone was trying to give you directions or a pointer on what to do, while our guide tried to give us the impression that Burnie was indeed the centre of the known universe.

But, the reason for coming to Tasmania, is not really to visit a fairly run-of-the-(paper)-mill provincial town like Burnie, it's to see the unspoilt countryside that surrounds it. Sadly, the weather refused to co-operate, and we didn't really get to experience Burnie or Tasmania at its best. Because, a strong wind was gusting for the entire day, and it was raining quite heavily for most of it too.

Normally, I'm fairly sceptical when the guide tells you on a rainy day how unlucky you are, and that they've been enjoying "an amazing summer up to today"; but, from the yellow grass of the rolling countryside, you could see that they haven't had much rain here recently. Well, I think that today made up for that. At times, it absolutely lashed it down.

Our trip first took us to Highfield House, a fascinating Regency building from the very first days of the colony, when the Van Diemen's Land Company was attempting to turn this part of the world into a lucrative sheep-producing area. We heard that, sadly for them, the oppressive weather here meant that the sheep farms failed and vast fortunes were lost - the elemental conditions that we experienced today certainly made this seem fairly believable. The house was in the process of being restored, so some rooms looked quite grand, while others were still fairly ruined – it was like a melancholic metaphor for the bright hopes and then dashed dreams of the company in this rather bleak part of the world.

By now, the weather was really closing in, so I really should have followed the example of most of the other guests, and declined to take the chair-lift up "the Nut" – an enigmatically-named lump of volcanic rock, that sits above the pretty town of Stanley. Just as I climbed onto the chair-lift, enormous gusts of wind blew in, pelting me with hard drops of rain arrowing horizontally straight at me. I felt pretty exposed as I dangled there on the swaying chair-lift, trying to shelter my face from the stinging rain. Of course, the views would have been beautiful if only I'd been able to keep the rain out of my eyes – at one point I got my phone out to take a picture but the gale almost blew it out of my hands, so there is no documentary evidence of my trial-by-Nut.

Ironically, as soon as I got back down to the bottom, the winds died down again to just Hurricane-level (although it continued to rain); but I was by now absolutely drenched, and feeling frozen. That meant that I wasn't really able to appreciate the historic atmosphere of Stanley, which I'm sure would be very attractive in the sun, but looked dull and deserted in the dreary weather.

I suppose that nowhere looks good in the rain, but Burnie and Stanley were not looking their best today. In weather like this, the tourist industry can be a tough Nut to crack.

PS. Tracy had a more successful time at the Wings Wildlife Park, so here's a couple of her animal shots.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

February 11th – Milford and Dusky Sounds

Today we were treated to some of the most scenic cruising that you can possibly imagine, as we sailed around the superb Dusky and Milford Sounds on New Zealand's wild and untouched south-western coast. So, for the guests it was a case of sit back and enjoy the magnificent scenery of these awesome fjords, while for the poor Destination Lecturer it was a case of go up to the bridge and try to describe the indescribably beautiful.

It's a difficult balance to strike – giving enough information to make your presence over the ship's PA system worthwhile, but not talk so much that you ruin the serenity of the vistas, or more importantly, annoy the Captain with your constant prattling.

The other thing is that you soon run out of superlatives, as you drink in these supremely stunning views that words can scarcely do justice to. As I used up all my poetic powers in my narration, I think I'll let Tracy's pictures do the talking in this blog. But, however good the pictures look, you really have to see this in person to fully appreciate the sheer natural beauty of New Zealand's breathtaking Fjordland.