New Zealand – Alluring Auckland

My transfer from airport to hostel was smooth as a baby’s bum and I collapsed gratefully into my bunk. I stayed at Newton Lodge which is a 10 minute walk from Auckland CBD. It was clean and warm. What else do you want for $21 NZD a night?

My first few days in Auckland were spent lost in administration (which will be covered in another blog) but when I did eventually get going, here’s what I got up to.

Auckland CBD is basically 1 main street (Queen Street) flanked by several other less busy streets. It has shops, cafes, eateries, a cinema, hostels, hotels, a theatre, a city hall and a harbour at the end. The harbour is a good looking thing though.

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Unless you want to shop, there’s not a whole lot to do on Queen street. I saw a film (The Wolverine, I didn’t think much to it), drank coffee and bought some beautiful shoes. You have to travel a little to see interesting stuff.

Back when I was young, one of my school friends emigrated to New Zealand and lives in Auckland. This meant I was treated to a wonderful catch up and a chauffeur driven trip to a black sand beach. More specifically,  Piha beach. I’ve never seen a black sand beach and my first trip was rather bracing and threatened with rain. I can only imagine how busy it is in summer with the sun beaming.

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Auckland is built on/around many volcanoes and I think this is how black sand beaches came to be. I don’t know the true origin but I think it’s more likely to be volcanic than my other theory (which is that food colouring is used to stain sand grains black).

Whilst in Auckland, I thought it would be rude not to go and visit the museum. It’s a 15-20 minute walk from the CBD and located in a place called the Domain. The name sounds ominous but what you’ll actually find in the Domain is a great green space. There’s a cafe and the museum quite close to one another so you can have a rest after your (uphill) walk. Here’s the museum.

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Entry to the museum is free for Aucklanders but for everyone else it’s $10 NZD. I opted for a tour and to attend the Maori cultural performance so my bill was $35 NZD.

They have some striking pieces in the museum but maybe the most impacting is the stained glass ceiling.

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The top floor is mostly dedicated to the war memorial but the museum does contain various collections. These range from animals in the deep seas to inhabitants of the Pacific Islands which contributed to migrating populations in New Zealand. There is a dedicated Maori heritage collection.

I very much enjoyed the Maori cultural show. The participants demonstrated various training techniques, weapons and tools accompanied by beautiful vocal arrangements. The biggest impression was left by the Haka they performed. I cannot find the words to describe the effect a haka had on me ,even when I knew i was not about to be attacked. I found myself shrinking towards the back of my chair despite best efforts at withstanding intimidation. It is truly a fearsome and powerful thing. Excuse my photography but the room was dimly lit and I was a few rows back.

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As I’d ticked the box labeled ‘culture’, I progressed onto the one labeled ‘geek’. I am referring to the fact that I visited the Hobbiton set on a day trip from Auckland. I booked with a company, whom I can thoroughly recommend, called Bush and Beach. I was collected from the door of my accommodation at 6:35 in the morning and the day began.

It’s a few hours drive from Auckland to the Hobbiton set but on the way our guide informed us about the landscape, native species and conservation in the area. New Zealand native birds had so few predators that they evolved to be flightless. When man arrived with cats, dogs, stoats, possums and rats, the flightless bird took a real hammering. In an effort to revitalise the populations, areas of their habitats have been fenced off, all predators removed from inside the fence and the species reintroduced. It seems to be working not only for native animals but also for native plants. New Zealand is slowly returning areas to their pre man state.

All this learning was a welcome distraction for me as I was almost ready to eat my fist with excitement. When we eventually arrived at the set I was basically hopping with joy. The first thing that struck me was the absolute, untouched beauty of the place.

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You get collected from the visitor centre by a bus and taken to the set. You are left in no doubt as to where you’re headed.

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A guide accompanies you around the set and points out Hobbit holes of interest, regails you with trivia, behind the scenes facts and is generally very entertaining and informative. For example, when filming the party scene, from The Fellowship of the Ring, extras were given beer to drink prior to filming in order to make the atmosphere authentic. The beer was 1% strength and brewed especially for the film. You can still buy the beer in the shop. Here’s a shot of the party tree.

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And here is Bag End! If you watch the Hobbit, you will see Frodo and Bilbo removing letters from that very postbox.

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The entire process of building the set was lengthy and a logistical nightmare. The New Zealand army was drafted in, lakes were drained, roads were built and a mammoth undertaking was completed.

The most impressive thing for me was the Green Dragon pub. It has been decorated inside to be just like you see it in the films. It was very cosy and the specially brewed pale ale was delicious.

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The attention to detail is amazing inside the pub.

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It’s a properly licenced food and drink venue and can cater for events and weddings (of which there have been a few). I wanted to stay and have more beer but we were moved along. Still, lots of fun and one last shot of the hobbit holes to leave you with.

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Auckland is incredibly relaxed and quiet. Considering a third of the New Zealand population lives in Auckland, you might find that hard to believe but, I thought it was quiet.

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Border Bureaucracy – New Zealand Edition

The 4 hour flight from Melbourne to Auckland passed without incident. I watched ‘The Great Gatsby’ and filled in my landing card. Immigration was cleared and my luggage was collected so I headed for customs.

You have to declare some seriously odd stuff when you enter New Zealand e.g. shoes you’ve worn outdoors in the last week. I had dutifully declared all the weird things and confidently placed my bags on the conveyor for xraying. Next thing I know, I’m pulled aside and being asked what this thing in my bag is. It looked like a pack of sausages, it really did, and I could not think what it was. It was three distinct cylindrical looking shapes packed tightly next to each other.

I began to panic.  I thought back to the ‘has anyone tampered with your luggage’ question that you answer automatically at check in and wondered if someone had tampered with it. My internal monologue was as follows:

“What if some ruffian has planted a pack of sausages on me? What if it’s drugs? Oh s#&t, it’s drugs. It’s wraps of crack. I’m going to jail. That’s it. I’ve had drugs planted on me and now this nice man is going to find them and I’m going to go to jail unlawfully because some bloody bottom feeder stashed his gear in my bag when I was distracted by something shiny or food. The f#@*er. I’m going to go Liam Neesom on him when I find him, or her. I mean it could have been a girl. Oh s#&t, s#&t, s#&t, s#&t, s#&t.”

As the man with the latex gloves on approached I could feel myself sweating. He unzipped my bag and began to rifle around. I prepared myself to be tackled and cuffed by law enforcers. I wondered if I could make a run for it but decided I’d gotten too fat and unfit to attempt a runner. The exits were heavily staffed. I was doomed, unjustly doomed.

I felt my heart rate quicken as he saw something and looked puzzled. His puzzlement became a smile. “Of course he’s smiling” I thought, “he just busted an unwilling drug trafficker!” then he spoke,

“Ah! It’s your bars of soap we saw on the xray. Off you go!”.

I laughed with relief but internally was concentrating on not wetting myself. I scurried away, swaying ever so slightly, trying to ignore the muscle at the edge of my eye twitching furiously.

Emma 0 – 1 Irrational brain logic.

Australia – Magical Melbourne

I arrived in Melbourne feeling like a sack of something nasty. I was tired and desperately wanted to shower. Luckily I had a place to stay and a short trip out of the centre took me to a house with a bathroom and a bed. Score!

To get around in Melbourne you need a ‘Myki’ card. This card will cost you $6 AUD (non-refundable). You tap on and off transport as you use it and your pre-loaded credit gets deducted. There’s train, buses and trams in Melbourne. I gave in trying to work out the fare system and daily cap as it seemed to change every time I got on something. The Myki system is confusing and doesn’t work very well most of the time. Also, you cannot claim back any cash left on your card when you’re ready to leave so plan how much you top up carefully.

Australia is currently in the middle of winter so Melbourne was not the tropical temperatures you would expect. It was between about 10-17 degrees whilst I was there and it rained a bit too. This didn’t really affect me however as, being British, my breeding makes me mostly impervious to bad weather. I replaced my lost coat rather quickly (I’m not that hardy) and got on with seeing the City.

The architecture in Melbourne is glorious. There’s plenty of well preserved buildings to enjoy within very short walking distance of one another. The State Library of Victoria is an imposing example.

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Looks a bit Greek with those columns doesn’t it? Inside the library there was an exhibition on other public buildings in Melbourne. It covered who designed them, how they have been added to over time and the origins of why they were commissioned. Pretty interesting really. I walked around it for a bit.

The closest station to the Library is Melbourne Central. It’s a bit of an architectural triumph in itself as the station is built around this very tall tower.

Melbourne Central

That’s right, around the tower. The council said “No, no. You can’t knock that down and develop there, no way.” so a clever architect said, “how about I build around it then?”. The council said “Well yes, that works, off you go.” and so they did! Now, there’s a mall and a train station all snuggled up to the tower. How lovely.

My personal ‘wow factor’ building was Flinders Street train station and I don’t believe further explanation will be required after you see the photo:

Flinders St Station

Another impressive, but somber, building is the Shrine of Remembrance. It was built after the end of the First World War in order to commemorate the sacrifice of Victorians.

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The shrine has a visitors centre beneath it with information on how the war affected Australia. The shrine itself is cleverly designed so that at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the sun shines directly onto a plaque set at the heart of the building which reads “Greater Love Hath No Man”. The word ‘Love’ is illuminated by the sunlight for a few minutes before the sun passes by. Every 30 minutes, they have a ‘fake’ sunlight moment for visitors to enjoy. There’s also a balcony area which provides you with excellent views of Melbourne if you wander around it. There’s guided tours each day too at 11am and 2pm. I missed the 2pm one but was lucky enough to find a spare volunteer who didn’t mind taking me around. Free to enter and well worth a visit.

Right next to the Shrine of Remembrance you will find the Observatory and the Botanic Gardens. The Observatory has a few information boards dotted about but you can’t go inside or see anything really. The gardens are as you would expect, beautiful. It felt distinctly autumnal in certain sections of the gardens though. I really felt like this could have been a scene from anywhere in Britain.

Botanic gardens

Again, you can take a free tour at 11am or 2pm around the gardens but I missed both of them. The gardens are free and make for a joyous stroll. You can get a good view over the river Yarra from the far North East side of the gardens too. Worth going for a look.

Melbourne has ample shopping. There’s modern malls and boutique shops to be found around every corner. My personal favourite, if not tacky, shopping spot was the Queen Victoria Markets.

Victoria Market

Here, you can buy anything from fresh meat and veg to some really rather dubious ‘authentic’ Australian souvenirs. My personal best buy were 6 doughnuts from an American style caravan thing between the vegetables and tat sections.

Another less tacky place I enjoyed was the Block Arcade.

Block Arcade

There’s mostly more independent shops in here which will sell you everything from cake to greetings cards. The building itself is really rather lovely and the shops have been fitted into it very respectfully.

Away from the older buildings now and into the new, the central business district (CBD). As you would expect, the buildings are tall and shiny. They light up at night too.

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Amongst the CBD you can find many things to do. There’s the arts centre (which looks rather like an odd Eiffel Tower) and the gallery to look around. The Gallery is wonderful and I visited on two separate occasions so as to make sure I didn’t miss anything in the exhibitions. There’s the iconic Federation Square where Melbourne holds most of it’s big parties (New Years Eve etc) and a casino set right on the river. You have theatres, bars with live music, street performers and amazing street art all just right there. Truly brilliant! The CBD looks impressive from further away too. Here’s a shot taken from the jetty at Williamstown (a smaller ‘township’ about 20 minutes outside Melbourne).

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Williamstown itself is adorable and I bet the fish and chips/ice cream combo there during summer rivals the best of the best.

I also made a short trip to St Kilda which I didn’t see a great deal of. What I did see was a rather attractive water side ‘town’ that I wanted to spend more time in. I also saw live music in Fitzroy, enjoyed a giant monkey in King Kong and rode the city circle tram. It was also Melbourne Open House weekend whilst I was there so I got to see inside City Hall and stand exactly where Her Royal Highness The Queen stood and waved to crowds form the City Hall balcony in the 50’s. Smashing! I did a fair old bit really.

Apart from the City itself, a ‘must do’ if you’re going to be in Melbourne is the Great Ocean Road. This road does exactly what is says on the tin. It’s great to drive on and it’s by the ocean. You can’t go wrong.

There’s lots of towns and view points to stop at once you get on the road and I would suggest a minimum 1 night stop over. We stopped for the night at Apollo Bay on our trip at a place called Angela’s Guesthouse. As it’s off season, we paid $150 AUD for 4 people to share a ‘suite’. There were beds, a bathroom and a lounge area with tea and coffee provided. Not bad at all for the price.

Anyway, why should you go on the Great Ocean Road? ‘Cause it’s beautiful, that’s why. My favourite beach was probably this one and I believe it’s Bell’s Beach.

Great Ocean Road Bells Beach

The lookout points at all the stops are pretty good but this one, I found, was spectacular. We had a bit of fun writing in the sand and generally being mischievous.

Great Ocean Road

The weather was pretty changeable. It was consistently cold but the wind and rain attacked intermittently. The afternoons were definitely the worst for weather. We were soaked through to the bone on the afternoon of our first day because we’d been caught in a deluge. If you’re visiting in summer time you won’t have to worry but a winter visit resulted in drying a lot of clothes on radiators and broken umbrellas.

The first real ‘landmark’ we saw were the Erskine falls. There’s two view points, the upper and lower. You’ll get this view from the lower:

Erskine Falls

Once you’re at the bottom, there is a trail you can follow further down the cascades. I chickened out due to my clumsy nature and Converse All Stars unsuitable shoes. One of the girls I went with did venture down and got some stunning photos of the cascades. She said the path seemed to go on and on so experienced ramblers could probably go for a decent trek.

A world famous stop is the 12 Apostles. There’s a little visitors centre with bathroom and caffeine facilities. When you get down onto the walkway, there’s a few paths you can take for views. Just take them all one at a time. Here’s my personal favourite (now with extra blowy hair).

12 apostles

You can take a helicopter tour over the apostles if you so desire but none of us did, so we didn’t.

Past the 12 apostles is Loc Ard Gorge and Hunters cave. This is the site of a famous shipwreck but, as I’m not into all that stuff, I didn’t pay attention to the information boards. I stood and watched waves career into rocks and wondered how they’d withstood erosion for so long.

Hunter's cave

The section of road after the 12 apostles is apparently a big ship wreck buffs dream as there were loads of sinkings and what not. It was easy to understand how ships had gotten wrecked as the waves were enormous and vicious. There’s a few light houses on the way too with the most famous being the Otway lighthouse (but it was closed).

Down the road from the 12 apostles you can make several stops on what is called the ‘gourmet’ trail. There’s cheese and wine places to go but we went to the chocolate place. I’d been treated to some pretty amazing hot chocolate in Melbourne at Koko Black’s (in the Royal Arcade) but this hot chocolate just pipped it to the post.

Gorge Chocolate

Gorge chocolates is run by a a couple who hand temper all their goods. They sell almost everything you can imagine but my personal favourite was raspberry liquorice coated in white chocolate. Absolutely divine!

Back on the sightseeing trail, we headed to another icon of the Ocean Road, London Bridge. It’s not the London Bridge I know and love, it’s something completely different and stunning.

London Bridge on Great Ocean Road

Honestly, when I say every view point is worth stopping at on the Great Ocean Road, I mean it. There’s something unique on offer at every station. It’s a crying shame we had wet weather. If it had been bitterly cold and windy we would have been happy to see much more but, with rain pouring in from all directions, we had to abandon some stops in favour of not catching pneumonia. You can see from my final picture just how much the weather closed in towards the end of the second day. We raced against the rain for as long as we could but conceded at about 4pm and headed back to Melbourne.

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A quick stop in Geelong to fill our bellies full of Indian food was a good move! We arrived back in Melbourne at about 9pm after a stunning 2 days driving. I can only imagine how beautiful the trip is in summer.

I will conclude with the fact that Melbourne is an anomaly which I was not expecting. It’s a city striving to be all things cultural and it’s not doing a bad job. By British standards, Melbourne is a tiny baby of a City but, despite that, it’s really got some good stuff going on! The plucky young thing knows what it wants to be when it grows up and that’s helping it to be a pretty exciting place whilst it develops. Well done Melbourne, you managed to bewitch me.

Australia – Curious Cairns

I ended up getting a flight from Brisbane to Cairns. It was a late flight getting into Cairns at just before midnight. I’d called my accommodation earlier in the day to make sure there would still be someone to pick me up and had been assured there would be. Of course there wasn’t. Luckily, there was a private shuffle bus company still running a service so I paid them to take me to Asylum Backpackers in Cairns. It turns out that private shuttle companies are the only mode of mass transit to the airport. No public transport goes there at all which is kind of stupid.

The welcome at Asylum backpackers was worth waiting for but the rest of the stay was lack lustre, bordering on frustrating. It just wasn’t the place for me. There was nothing really wrong with it, I just didn’t like the layout or the general type of person staying there. They all seemed to be the young travelling crowd who think Daft Punk are a new band on the scene and that makes me want to punch myself in the face. My face only needs the help of a professional surgeon so I wouldn’t go back to Asylum.

Cairns itself felt slow and behind the times. It had all the modern conveniences of a city, malls etc, but it’s just lacking in everything else. I was very pleased to only be there a couple of days before my dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef.

I booked onto a 3 day/2 night, qualified diver, live aboard with Cairns Dive Centre. It cost me $600 which I still think is excellent value for 10 dives (and as much snorkelling as you can fit in). Saying that, I was disappointed with the dive sites we visited. We only went to 2 sites over 3 days which I think is a bit poor. We went to East Timor and 360°/Coral Garden. I preferred the latter as a dive site.

East Timor is pretty small, shallow (approx 12m average) and I felt we over dived it. If you’re a diver with bad air consumption, 5 dives at East Timor would feel ok because you’d need time to explore. If you’re air consumption is good, you need 3 dives at East Timor before you’ve explored and 4 dives before you’re hoping you move site. I’ve got good air consumption and did 6 dives at East Timor which was too many in my opinion.

360°/Coral Garden is a much bigger site with better depth and an impressive wall to explore. We completed 4 dives there and I would have liked 2 more because it’s just huge. I don’t feel like I explored it properly which is a shame. Also, Barry the barracuda hangs out under the boat at 360° so you’re guaranteed to see one.

The boat, Kangaroo Explorer, was decent enough but you could tell it had seen lots of action. The dorms were clean, the food was good and the staff were great. The other divers and snorkelers were fabulous though. They really made the trip and I intend to keep firmly in touch with many of them. Here’s a sunst view from the boat.

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I had 8 good dives and 2 awful dives. On the awful dives, we ended up getting completely lost. One was due to strong current, poor navigating and bad visibility. The other was a night dive which resulted in confusion and disorientation.

The good dives ranged from indifferent to blooming amazing. I ended up seeing (not a full list) 2 green turtles, lots of nemos, moorish idols, parrot fish, lion fish, buckets of adorable anemone fish and, whilst snorkeling, a manta ray. I was too cheap to hire an underwater camera so I don’t have pictures to share with you. You’ll just have to believe me when I say how amazing it was.

Once my dive trip was done, I headed to Melbourne on another late night, but cheap, flight after my required 24 hour surface break.

Overall, I have no desire to revisit Cairns. It’s not my type of place but I can’t put my finger on why. It just felt a bit backwards and awkward (all the adjectives ending in ‘ard’ actually). I also managed to lose my coat before I left Cairns which was handy as I expected Melbourne to be bloody freezing. Oh well. More on Melbourne next episode!

Australia – Brilliant Brisbane

Brisbane was my destination after Sydney. To get there I took a Countrylink overnight train which cost me $65AUD. The trains have regular seats so it’s not the most comfortable ride but there is a buffet car so you can get hot food and drinks all journey. The journey would have been ok if it hadn’t been for one disgustingly drunk idiot who yelled at staff and passengers all night.

After the train ride ended and I arrived in Brisbane, my lovely couchsurfing host collected me from the station and took me to the most beautiful thing I might ever have seen. It was a room with a bed in it that I didn’t have to share with anyone else. After a night on a train with a few hundred people and nearly 10 months in dorm rooms with up to 23 other people, the room was a little piece of paradise.

To get around in Brisbane, you’ll need a Go card. This is a plastic card which you load money onto. You then tap on and off transport as you use it and the appropriate fare is deducted. There’s a refundable $10AUD deposit to pay when you first get the card but you can claim that, and any remaining positive balance, back when you hand it in to a ticket office.

Anyway, I’ve deviated. Brisbane City is set on the Brisbane river (excellent naming convention there) and as a result has some amazing riverside living and attractions. It also has a bit of a flooding problem but they’re working on that. One of my favourite riverside areas was the Southbank.

The entire Southbank area was flattened for Expo 88 and then rebuilt after all the expo structures were dismantled. There are still echoes of expo to see. Whilst in Brisbane, I took a free guided walk run by the Brisbane Greeters. The ‘Greeter’ programme is run worldwide and gets locals involved in showing tourists around their Cities. The tour I took covered quite a lot of how Brisbane changed before and after Expo 88. Here’s an example of an expo remnant, a hovering man on a unicycle.

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There’s also a fairly fun exhibition about Expo 88 in the city hall where there have examples of float designs and general expo paraphernalia. I enjoyed the costumes the best. This one reminded me of feathery friends in Sydney.

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Anyway, after Expo 88 the Southbank area was rebuilt with many awesome features. One of my favourites is this man made beach. You can swim, sunbathe and build sand castles next to the river in the middle of the city!

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As there’s a river running through the city, it’s a good idea to have ways to cross it. There’s a pretty good (free) ferry service called the City Hopper and their little red ferries will move you between stops on the river very happily. There’s also the City Cat (paid for service) running almost the whole length of the city. There’s a free audio that you can download and listen to whilst you’re on the City Cat. It’ll tell you about Brisbane landmarks as you pass them. It’s well worth a trip and a listen if you’ve got time.

The most convenient and efficient way to cross the river is to use bridges. There’s plenty of them. This is a shot of the pedestrian and cycle bridge which I nicknamed the porcupine bridge (actually called the Kurilpa bridge).

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The most iconic bridge in Brisbane is probably the Story bridge. It has echoes of the Sydney Harbour bridge but on a smaller scale. It’s still fairly impressive and you can find interesting pubs built right underneath it.

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The Story bridge is illuminated at night which makes it look very imposing and ever so shiny.

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Whilst in Brisbane, I got the impression that the city council cares about and wants to encourage more walking and cycling in Brisbane. I completely agree. The city isn’t huge and is easily accessible by both bike and foot. There’s plenty of dedicated cycle paths and bridges. Here’s another pedestrian and cyclist only bridge, the Goodwill bridge.

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There’s is a cycle hire scheme in Brisbane but no real information available on how to use it. It’s also illegal to ride without a helmet in Brisbane so, if you do hire a bike, you have to have appropriate gear for it.

Architecture in Australia is generally from the period I enjoy looking at the most. It may not be old but I enjoyed it immensely. St. Andrew’s Uniting Church (right opposite the city hall) is an imposing red brick church which can not fail to catch your eye.

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City Hall itself is a great building.

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There’s several free guided tours of city hall each day but make sure you book your spot because they fill up fast. There’s also a free trip you can take up the clock tower for good views of Brisbane, a novelty trip in a manual lift and a look at some big bells.

The Auditorium inside city hall has a rather awesome ceiling dome which sparkles pretty colours. I went to see free music there at 12 on a Tuesday. It’s great that the city council puts on free music every week inside city hall. It’s first come first served so get there a little earlier to guarantee a seat.

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There really is a lot to see and do in Brisbane. On the ‘Greeters’ walk we visited the University in order to play with a giant, interactive touchscreen.

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We also dropped in to look around Old Government House. It’s an interesting building that has a good video introduction you can watch which gives you decent overview of the house history. There’s no entrance fee either which makes it even more satisfying to go see.

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Both the university and old government house are located pretty close to the botanic gardens which are definitely worth a walk around. There’s a free guided walk (daily) you can take around those too.

Kangaroo point is another good place to go and see. It has some lovely views of the city.

Apart from the actual city, Brisbane has some amazing outdoor space. One of my personal favourites was a Sunday morning walk through the undergrowth of Mount Gravatt. The view when you get to the top makes your sweaty back seem worth it.

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There’s another big hill you can go up called Mount Cootha. There’s botanic gardens next to Mount Cootha which you can walk around but, let’s be honest, you go up a hill for the view.

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The pace of life in Brisbane was definitely several steps more relaxed than in Sydney. It’s a great place to just chill out. It’s only a short drive/train ride from beaches of the Gold and Sunshine coasts. Is a gorgeous city full of wonderful people.