We landed at Heathrow Airport only half an hour later than expected, at just before 7am. Our pre-arranged taxi was waiting for us to to take us to Tilbury, to pick up the van, a journey along a not-too-busy M25 that took roughly an hour.
After that, all we had to do was drive home; 4-5 hours up the A1, to Richmond in North Yorkshire.
And so ends another adventure.
While we were on the Columbus, I had my next cruise assignment confirmed. In June, I will be running painting classes on board the Marco Polo as it sails North, to Norway, The North Cape and Spitzbergen; the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Until then, I just have some jet-lag to shake off…
Our flight was due to leave at 4:40pm local time, meaning we would would need to be at the airport for about 1:30pm. So, having checked-out at around 9am, with a morning to fill, we left our luggage in the hotel lock-up and went for a walk.
Having done all the major sightseeing that we wanted to do over the last couple of days, we headed off in a completely different direction, towards a large circular park area known as Tumbalong Park. Here, we found a little gem…
The Chinese Garden of Friendship is a walled area consisting of landscaped gardens, a lake bursting with giant Coy Carp, streams tumbling over little waterfalls (talk about a water feature…), and several pavilions and other structures built in a traditional Chinese style.
We bought a couple of tickets and went in, not entirely knowing what to expect, and were instantly charmed by it.
The pathway we followed was accompanied by helpful information boards that explained the meaning and purpose behind each element of the garden we came across. It was truly a walk of discovery and exploration; we couldn’t believe just how much they’d managed to pack into a relatively small area. There was something quite magical about it, made all the more compelling by the backdrop of high-rise buildings visible just beyond the wall. Despite the skyscrapers, the garden felt like it was a whole other world away.
Needless to say, we enjoyed our leisurely stroll through the garden immensely, exploring every pathway we came across and watched the spectacle of massive carp being fed from one of the pavilions at precisely 11am.
Eventually, we had to bid farewell to the Chinese Garden of Friendship, and indeed, it was time to bid farewell to Australia…
A taxi dropped us off at the International Airport at about 1:15pm, where we joined a very long queue to check-in (Note to self: check-in online in future).
There was a bit of an eek moment when it came to weighing our luggage. The two large suitcases, which we’d been most worried about, were okay, but we found out, only at the check-in point, that there is also a strict weight allowance on cabin bags- a small detail we’d managed to overlook. Fortunately, our check-in guy was a nice guy, and allowed us to redistribute some of our stuff (as many other folks in the queue had been doing), to allow us through. This mostly meant tying jumpers and coats around our middle and stuffing the heavy binoculars case into one of the larger suitcases.
By the time we’d queued and been scanned through security, walked for miles to the departure gate and finally found our seats on the plane, our Qatar Airways flight took off more or less on time
Much of the rest is a bit of a blur…
Other than a brief stopover and change of planes at Dohar, we were sat in our cramped cattle-class seats for approximately 25 hours (although, to be fair, the second plane was much larger and quite a bit more comfortable than the first). Oh to be able to afford Business Class. That’s a lot of movies, and in the case of the second flight, an earnest attempt at getting some sleep.
Day two of our stay in Sydney began by a visit to the Anzac Monument. The monument is situated at one end of Hyde Park, which in turn is only a block away from the Travelodge Hotel where we were staying, so it made sense to put it first on the agenda.
To say the Anzac Monument is a masterclass in monuments and presentation is an understatement. From the outside, it is an imposing structure, flanked by a shallow lake on one side and a series of simple, but effective waterfalls on the other. The waterfalls actually split into two, and a gradually decsending walkway between the two of them leads you into the underground body of the building.
This was the first surprise; just how much of it is underground. For such a modest-looking structure, it harbours a warren of rooms beneath it. There’s a central, circular area where the walls are tiled entirely with plaques, each with the name of a fallen soldier. Alongside each name is a small glass container containing soil originating from the area in which they lived. Off to the side of this is the next surprise; two large exhibition rooms packed full of static and advanced interactive displays telling the stories of those who fought and are still fighting. Museums and war memorials are not generally my thing, but I have to admit that I could have spent hours in there.
But that was not all… a flight of steps led us up into the main body of the memorial building, where further displays greeted us, and a central, closed-off area containing a dramatic sculpture. By sheer coincidence, we arrived at that point at exactly 11am, a time at which each day they have two minutes silence and play the Last Post. Very moving.
Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the Anzac memorial and headed off across Hyde Park to our next destination; St Marys Cathedral. We spent a while there, and paid a few dollars to go down into the crypt, before moving on.
Hyde Park Barracks and The Mint are two buildings a little further on from the Cathedral, built more or less alongside each other. The Barracks currently has an art installation around the outside of it (a patterned floor), whch we took a look at, but didn’t bother to pay to go inside. We still had a lot to get in, and figured that we might come back to it later on the way back, if we had the time (spoiler alert… we didn’t).
The next building we took a look inside was The Mint, which is an old colonial-style building that now houses a cafe upstairs and not much else. Or if there was more to see, then we didn’t find it…
A little further along, we came to the Parliament Building of New South Wales. Again, this was free to enter; we had our bags and clothes scanned upon entry, and were allowed to wander around its corridors and look into rooms at our leisure. A very helpful gentleman offered to take us into the debating chamber, of which there are two. As it turned out, though, they’d just broken for lunch, so there wouldn’t be much to see other than the interior of the room, which is known as ‘The Bear Pit’, he explained due to the aggressiveness of the debating that goes off in there. In another room, which we could peer into through a glass door, another debate was in session, which was also being televised live at that moment (TV screens dotted here and there showed what was going on)… a little like the House of Commons on TV at home.
We spent a bit longer in the next building, the State Library of NSW, which was impressive inside, and had a few art galleries, before grabbing lunch at a little ‘Piccolo Me’ Kiosk, located on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, which we would come back to later.
All of which led us, eventually, back to the harbour, and Sydney Opera House.
The Opera House is an interesting piece of architecture, familiar to anyone who has ever picked up an encyclopedia of the World or watched travel programmes on the TV. We might have paid for a tour of its insides if it wasn’t for the fact that there was clearly quite a bit of maintenance work going on, so we passed on it. We did spend quite a bit of time walking around the outside of it, however, and also pausing to take photographs looking back across the bay towards the Harbour Bridge, where we went yesterday. In fact, this area of Sydney is clearly Selfie-Heaven.
Having looked at the Bridge and the Opera House from all available angles, we realised that there was just one more view that we needed to get. This required walking around the next cove – Farm Cove – to Mrs Macquarie’s Point. Mrs Macquarie was the wife of a Governor of Sydney back in the day, and used to like sitting at that point and looking winsomely out across the bay. As a consequence, the Governor had a special chair cut into the rock for her, which is now known as Mrs Macquirie’s Chair.
Once we’d taken the obligatory photos of us sitting in the rock chair and taken our final photos looking back across the bay towards the Opera House, with the Harbour Bridge right behind it (because you have to… it’s the law…) , we started heading back towards the city, through the Botanical Gardens. Here, we got briefly rained on rather spectacularly, but the gardens were otherwise quite delightful and relaxing to walk through.
What do you think of this beauty?…
Once again, we paused in Hyde Park by the Archibald Fountain to watch the bats again before finally trudging wearily back to our hotel, where we had the remains of our Pizza + Crisps + Cake for dinner (we know how to live!).
Its disembarkation day, for us, and about 300 other passengers who have chosen to end their cruise in Sydney. We would have had to be up early anyway, on account of them wanting guests who are leaving to vacate their cabins by 7:30am; I’d set the alarm even earlier than that, though, in the hope of us making it up to the top deck in time to catch our arrival in Sydney Harbour.
Unfortunately, we’d arrived slightly earlier than expected. By the time we managed to get up on deck, the ship had already passed under the Harbour bridge and were in the process of parking alongside the quay. Such is the nature of the million dollar shot. Steven Spielberg would simply have ordered another take.
It didn’t matter. The view across the harbour towards the high-rise buildings of the city, with the sun rising behind them, was quite spectacular.
We had our final on-board breakfast in the bistro and dutifully waited in the Taverners Bar for light-blue luggage tags to be called. Disembarkation was relatively straightforward, and after a short period of queuing outside the cruise terminal building for an available taxi, we were soon on our way. By 10:30am, we’d crossed Anzac Bridge, checked into the Travelodge hotel and were preparing to head back out into the city. We have two days in which to explore and don’t want to waste a single moment; on Thursday, we’ll be heading home.
Out on the street, our first objective was the Victoria Building, a nineteenth-century heritage-listed building nestled in amongst modern high-rise skyscrapers and flanked by tramlines and busy streets. It was designed as a market place, and is today, still essentially, a shopping mall, but its interior is quite spectacular, and well worth the visit. With an ornate interior consisting of several floors connected by escalators, it features two very large old clocks that make noises and do things on the hour. One, the Great Australia clock, is a particularly enormous circular beast, while the Royal Clock displays six animated scenes from English Royal history. Both hang from the high ceiling. We had fun in the Victoria Building, but didn’t want to dally for too long, as we had even bigger fish to fry…
Sydney has a tower, and on this cruise, towers have been a bit of a thing for us. Having already taken the trip to the top of the Euromast Tower in Rotterdam at the start of the trip and the Sky Tower in Auckland, we naturally felt compelled to try for a hat-trick.
Sydney Tower isn’t quite as high as Auckland Tower, but the views are a little more impressive. Security was tighter too; we had to empty our pockets and pass through two airport-type scanners, and then endure a 10-minute presentation in a ‘4-D’ cinema before being allowed to take the elevator up to the top. It was well worth it, however; from the Observation Platform, we had expansive views right across the city. Below us, we could see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with the top of the Opera House roof just visible nearby, and across the harbour we could see the Columbus parked there. In fact, we were rather surprised at just how much water there was in the area, with lots of river inlets as far as the eye could see. We enjoyed a cold drink and a snack before heading back down to ground level, where we spent lots of money in the gift shop.
From the tower, our route meandered through busy streets – some pedestrianised, others just busy – in the direction of the Harbour. Here, two of Sydney’s most famous icons are to be found very close to each other. As we approached ‘The Rocks’, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city which now mostly caters for the tourists, we could see the Opera House off to our right, and as the quayside curved off to the left, so there was the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Between them, in Circular Quay, was parked ‘Voyager of the Seas’, an enormous, ugly floating block of flats if ever there as one.
We followed the promenade around the edge of the quayside, taking photographs as we went, and headed for the bridge. At each end of the bridge there are two distinctive concrete pylons; we were heading for what is known as the Pylon Lookout. A small glass lift carried us up to the level of the roadway, from where we were able to walk to the South-East pylon. A small entrance fee gave us access to a climb of about 200 steps, and an observation walkway, from where we enjoyed some particularly dramatic views across the bridge, and across to the Opera House and the harbour beyond. It is interesting to note that, for thrill-seekers, it is possible to climb along, and to the very top of, the bridge, under supervision and in controlled groups of course. We could see a couple of groups up there, and both Tracey and myself admitted that we’d quite fancy having a go at that. Not today, however; we’d walked too far, were tired, and it was getting quite late on… another time perhaps.
From the bridge, we started to navigate our way back towards our hotel. We paused for a beer in one of the pubs in the The Rocks, and went to take a look at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which we both agrgeed was total pants.
Our way back took us through Hyde Park, where we encountered, by the large ornate, Archibald Fountain, large numbers of fruit bats flying around. This kept us engaged for quite a long while, as we tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to film and photograph them. Gradually, we gravited towards the opposite end of the park, where the Anzac Memorial is situated.
By now, the light was fading and large numbers of locals were heading back home after a long days work. The memorial was closed, but we added it to our list of things to do tomorrow, when we will have a full day to continue our exploration of the city.
With our hotel being situated right on the fringes of Chinatown, we decided that what we fancied for dinner was a Chinese. However, as we walked through the area we soon realised that such a proposition was actually harder than you’d imagine. We found endless Thai and Korean Restaurants, interspersed with Japanese Sushi Houses. But could we find a Chinese Restaurant? Nope… In fact, we walked for quite some distance and were starting to lose hope of finding precisely what we fancied; a lot of the cafes and restaurants we saw were quite seedy looking. Eventually we changed tack and googled ‘Pizza’… at which point, things started to look up. We found ourselves in the ‘Macchiato Wood Fire Pizza & Coffee Roastery’, where pizzas were whizzed around and constructed before our very eyes, eager waiters flitted around making light work of customer demands, all accompanied by a small electric guitar and bass combo belting out standard tourist favourites. We ordered beer and pizza… we were in heaven.
In fact, the pizzas were too big for us – or, more likely, it was getting a little too late to be eating – either way, we had a couple of slices each left over for tomorrow’s dinner (our hotel room has a small kitchenette complete with microwave).
By the time we got back to the Travelodge, we were exhausted, but pleased with our first day in Sydney.
Today has been our very last day at sea and on the good ship Columbus.
Packing started immediately after breakfast, and was more or less completed by lunchtime, with just a few minor refinements required.
The Tasman sea has been much calmer today, and temperatures have been steadily rising too. We took some time to walk around the top deck and ponder our good fortune to be where we are. The nine sea days were tough, but the ports we’ve visited since then have more than made up for them; cruising is still an interesting way to see the world, and I hope I never take it too much for granted, despite the occasion challenges it might throw in the way.
It’s also been a day of saying goodbye to folks, who we might not get a chance to speak to on our way off the vessel in the morning.
This afternoon, we sat in on Paul’s lecture on things to see and do in Sydney, which was very helpful, but it also gave us lots more ideas than we’ll have time to do in the two days we have booked; naturally, we’ll be wanting to take a good look at Sydney Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House, but Paul’s talk proved that there is so much more to Sydney than just those two locations… it’s going to be a busy two days…
After dinner, went to the show. After that, we met up with Paul and Jos, Chrissie and Carol, and Sue for and informal drink in Raffles Bar.
Tomorrow morning, we will be disembarking the ship and stepping onto Australian soil for the very first time.
Follow watercolour artist Peter Woolley's adventures as he runs art workshops on the high seas…