Summer down under

Qinqiu Chen/Courtesy
Darling Harbour, Sydney, Australia

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When I think of the land “Down Under,” a jumble of stereotypical images immediately comes to mind: sun, sand, surfing, shrimp on the “barbie,” riding kangaroos to school, eating Vegemite by the spoonful and koalas on every lamppost. When my Melbournian friend invited me to see his country for three weeks over winter break, I jumped at the chance to discover Australia as it really is. Although most of my preconceptions of the country were obvious exaggerations, I did expect to enjoy the beautiful summer sunshine, see a kangaroo here and there and experience the country’s laid-back culture. And Australia definitely lived up to my expectations … most of the time.

Soccer game at AAMI Park

Soccer game at AAMI Park

I quickly learned that sports are at the forefront of Australian culture. I spent a vast majority of my time in Melbourne, the mecca of Australian sports. The Australian Tennis Open, the first of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments of the year, was in full swing, and legendary players such as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova battled it out on the court despite temperatures that reached a scorching 113 degrees Fahrenheit. I also attended a soccer game at AAMI Park, where I chanted along with the unruly crowd — unfortunately to a 3-0 loss. Meanwhile, I spent a good part of the Australian summer trying to learn about the country’s favorite pastime, cricket — a sport invented by the English only to be taken over by their colonial descendants.

The Block Arcade, one of the better known laneways of Melbourne

The Block Arcade, one of the better known laneways of Melbourne

Of course, Melbourne should be known for much more than just sports. A cosmopolitan hub of excellent food, trendy bars and art, its residents have built a culture centered on lifestyle – morning coffees, cafe lunches and a casual beer after work. Not a bad life, I say. The city is renowned for its “laneways,” or narrow alley streets lined with small shops, al fresco eateries and hole-in-the-wall cafes. These bustling streets each have their own charm and character. I spent some time salivating in front of the cake display of a tea room in the Block Arcade, a 19th-century laneway famous for its mosaic tiled flooring, glass canopy and richly decorated architecture. Be prepared: Melbourne is known for having “four seasons in a day,” and I have been fooled more than once by a clear, sunny sky only to find myself running to the closest tram stop to escape a sudden downpour later in the afternoon.

Meeting some friendly wallabies at Maru Wildlife Park

Meeting some friendly wallabies at Maru Koala and Animal Park

For a day trip away from the city, Phillip Island is the obvious choice for any nature lover. Along the way to the island, our tour group stopped by a wildlife park, where I had the unique opportunity to feed and cuddle with kangaroos and koalas, which made for some memorable pictures. The island, rumored to be the home of actor Liam Hemsworth, features beautiful beaches, woodland trails and, of course, the famous Penguin Parade, at which visitors can watch a large colony of penguins waddle ashore to their sand dune burrows for the night.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

I also spent a few days in Sydney, Australia’s largest and arguably most famous city and a place where vibrant urban culture and idyllic coastal life collide. No trip to Sydney is complete without a walk through Circular Quay, which is home to two of the city’s most distinguished landmarks – the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Although I did not attend a show at the Opera House, it was awe-inspiring just to be able to stand in front of one of the world’s most photographed buildings. At 134 meters (or 440 feet) above water level, the Harbour Bridge is the tallest steel arch bridge in the world. Thrill seekers can even climb to the very top of the bridge for a magnificent 360-degree view of the city, but I balked at the price, which was almost as steep as the hike.

Lazing about by the shore is the best way to spend a hot summer day, and with so many Sydney beaches to choose from, our only problem was deciding on a place. We finally settled for the popular Manly Beach, which was only a short ferry ride away. There, I joined other tan vacationers in frolicking in the waters and “sunbaking” on the shore. Afterwards, I enjoyed a delicious seaside lunch at one of its many “fish-and-chipperies.”

Brightly lit with bars and restaurants, Darling Harbour is the place to go for nightlife. Whether you prefer to feast on a waterside meal of kangaroo fillet (yes, you heard right) with sweet potato mash or sip on a martini while watching stunning fireworks launched from the harbor, it is a must-visit part of Sydney.

Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

Nearby is the Chinese Garden of Friendship, created to celebrate the cooperation between Sydney and her sister city of Guangzhou, China. The beautiful landscape of waterfalls, lakes and flora was designed with Taoist principles of “Yin-Yang” in mind. The garden also features an East-meets-West style tea house, where we snacked on both dumplings and scones with our morning tea. For a small fee, visitors can also slip into a traditional Imperial costume and be transformed into a Ming Dynasty emperor, princess or warrior, which made for some laughs and truly unforgettable photographs.

Three weeks (and a grueling 17-hour flight) later, I found myself back home in the United States with hundreds of photographs, a bag full of kangaroo key chains and wonderful memories of a fun-packed holiday. I know there is so much more to discover in the Land of Oz, and I can’t wait to be back one day.