Exploring Sydney- ‘I’m Free Walking Tours’

It’s fun being a tourist in your own city! I have to admit it gave me a great sense of pride, and I’m sure it’s this same sense of pride which motivates young people to become a ‘I’m Free Walking Tour’ guide – tours departing from Town Hall Square twice a day at 10.30am and 2.30pm, rain, hail, or shine.

Today we joined our first Sydney City walking tour, as my wife’s uncle was visiting from the States and what better way to see Sydney – but by foot! On this somewhat warm winter’s afternoon, at 2.15pm we found the guides in their light green ‘I’m free’ T-shirts, and we hung about until 2.35pm when the group was adequately large enough to set out walking.

The tours are in theory free, but in practice you’re encourage to pay what you deem the tour is worth to you at the conclusion of the 2 hour 30 minute walk. Once you arrive at the meeting point, you’re provided with a free colour map which marks out the stops along the way, and on the flip side there are handy tips which would enhance any tourist’s stay in Sydney.

At the time when we set-out, our tour group ended up being around 30 people in size. First we walked past the Town Hall – then into the QVB – before snaking our way down to Pitt Street Mall – and then onto Hyde park.

Then from the Park we walked to Macquarie Street and checked out the old Rum Hospital – before crossing back over to Martin Place where we  followed the mall down to George Street – ducking down some alleyways – to pop-up back on Pitt Street where we walked to the Gateway precinct for the half-point toilet break (it was 4pm by then).

We continued on to Circular Quay via Customs House, then Cadman’s cottage – and following the guide’s expert footsteps, we got to see the Harbour Bridge and Opera House from a vantage point which we’ve never seen our iconic landmarks from before (a lookout in the Overseas Passanger Terminal). And the tour ends in the Rocks, the time being 5pm by this stage.

And if you enjoy the Sydney City walking tour, at 6pm departing from Cadman’s Cottage every night (for an hour) you can join The Rocks walking tour offered by the same company.

The highlights:

One. The guide – he had an absolute passion for his city and an enthusiasm in re-telling all of his historic tales of Sydney. I learnt a number of stories which I was previously unaware of, and had a better sense of the limits of old Sydney township, i.e. that where the Town Hall sits today, was actually the Western outer limit of Old Sydney Town. Which emphasizes to me, how much we’ve grown as a city/nation in the past 200 odd years.

Two. Discovering unknown parts of our city- another highlight was walking down Angels Place, and experiencing the “Forgotten Songs” art installation for the first time. I was completely unaware of this place’s existence! It’s quite tranquil and relaxing, hearing all of those bird songs, I’d imagine it would be a nice way to de-stress if things are getting a bit too much at work.

Three. Random facts- And along with the handful of random facts which we learnt, the most handy random fact we learnt was that Opal card fares are capped at $2.70 for unlimited travel on Sundays! This is a random fact we ought to have known, but didn’t.

Four. Smiles- And it was a joy to hear my wife’s uncle laugh at some of the guide’s better antidotes; and seeing him enjoy himself as he saw our famous Sydney landmarks for the very first time.

Ideal time:

If you’re just a Sydney-sider who wants to better understand your city, you have the luxury to pick the perfect time to take this walking tour. As you know Sydney, it could either be too hot or too cold to be walking around for 150 minutes. Autumn or spring would be my best guess for the ideal time to take the tour. Or in the winter months it wasn’t that bad, just make sure you have a nice warm jacket and comfortable shoes. I personally think it’ll be a bit unpleasant to do the tour in the summer months.

In the end, the walking tour should be re-named as:

“I’m Actually Not Free Walking Tours”

As it’s not really free, at the beginning of the tour they hint that other similar tours which last half the length of their’s cost $30 pp, but don’t be influenced by this. In the end just give the guide how much you think the experience was worth to you. Before the  tour we had in mind just giving the guide $10, but after the tour we felt that it was worth more than that and we  ended up giving our guide $20 (which seemed like the going rate as each representative from their respective groups came forward and handed him $20).

If you’d like to learn more about the Sydney ‘I’m Free Walking Tours’, click HERE!

Exploring Sydney- Akuna Bay/Frenchs Forest

It was time again for another cruise with the car club, and we were pretty eager to see how the baby Beamer was going to handle after its recent steroidal enhancements! Mwahaha! This time the club were meeting north of the bridge in the evening for a cruise around Akuna Bay, a 20 minute loop which takes cars in & out of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

If you’ve never been to Akuna Bay in the evening, the 4 things you really really need are: a good night’s rest (the previous night); a healthy dose of carrots (to enhance your night vision); your GPS (as it’s easy to miss some crucial turns); and high high beams (as it’s literally pitch black out there). But it was a whole lot of fun though! Although you’re cruising at low speeds due to the constant curves, undulations, and several hair-pin turns- but it’s the longest curvy run we’ve ever driven through in NSW (puts Macquarie Pass and Galston Gorge to shame!). During the day time the loop is dotted with cyclists and motor cyclists, but at night it’s definitely a lower risk of running into cyclists (literally and figuratively), and that’s a very good thing for both driver and rider! And you know you’re out of the city limits when you look skywards and you can see brilliant bright stars! So cruisers and star gazers alike, Akuna Bay is ideal for both enthusiasts. *Nods*.

And after a few loops, we were hungry and it was time to push on to the second half of these meets, the dining and socialising part!

Austrian Club

20 Grattan Cres, Frenchs Forest NSW 2086 (13Km North of Sydney CBD)

And that’s right! No typo there! We went to the Austrian Club! Located in an out of way ex-Scout hall in leafy Frenchs Forest. What we do like about cultural societies, is that they’re pretty much run by a small team of faithfuls, and on this night it seemed that the Austrian Club had organised a special event (Tiroler Abend) – with a live Oom-pah band and a whole lot of people! (Last year when we came, there were only 3 tables of diners in a hall which could seat over 200). So that was a nice unexpected surprise, but the $15pp cover-charge was less of a pleasant surprise though. Even without the festivities, walking into the Austrian Club already feels like you’re transported to another era and another place! But insert ST Raphael’s Folk Dance Group, and it was like being transported to a beer hall in Salzburg, right down to the Dirndl that the ladies were adorned in (cultural dress).

In terms of food, the menu was abbreviated down to their crowd favourites, Schnitzels, Pork Knuckles (which were sold out), Roast Pork, and I ordered the Austrian-style Goulash- $25, and a 1/2 litre glass of Austrian beer! And boy! Talk about tummy warming hearty food! A Goulash is a stew which in reality was like a thick soup, or a runny gravy sauce (depends if you say tomato or tomato). Swimming in the brown liquid was melted onions, chunks of stewed beef, discs of carrots, and 3 huge bread dumplings! No wonder people in sub-freezing climates are able to get through their bitter long winters, with tummy-warming food like that! The highlight was breaking up the squishy dumplings (they were as large as intact peaches), and working them into the saucy gravy before you popped it and a chunky piece of beef into your mouth! The entire meal was consumed with a metal soup spoon, and although it was a little salty and overwhelming at times, that was a minor problem which a swig of Austrian beer easily solved! And after we had dinner tucked away, we just enjoyed taking in all the dancing (there were a few slap-reddened thighs) and music (featuring a piano accordion). During lulls in the noise we were able to have table conversations with our dining companions about cars; and when the dessert menu went around half of us found second-wind and got stuck into the Austrian desserts (Apple or Berry Strudels). And from all accounts, they were a notch above what you’d usually get elsewhere.

Recommendations:

If you have a bit of a sporty car, taking it around Akuna Bay Loop is one of those things you ought to have on a bucket list of things to do! The loop is like our very own version of the famed Nürburgring, the Nürburgring of the South! For directions, just Google the key words “Akuna Bay Loop”.

The Austrian Club can easily be a destination stop for groups, families, or couples on a day out! The Club is only open on Friday evenings, Saturday evenings, and all day Sundays. Check-out their events page if you want to coincide your visit with one of their special functions. Or if you’re just craving a good Austrian/Bavarian meal, and you don’t want one of those easier to access commercialised experiences,  check-out the Austrian club! It’s prima authentisch! (For those who have forgotten their Grade 8 German, that means “Super Authentic” in German!)

Exploring Springwood

Springwood is a Sydney suburb located on the foothills of the Blue Mountains- 73Km West of the Sydney CBD. You can get to Springwood by train via the Blue Mountains line (1hr 18 mins), $10-$15 using your Opal card, or you can get there by car (57 mins according to Google maps) but it definitely feels longer and ends up being longer (it actually took 1hr 10 mins).

On this glorious autumn’s day, we headed West to a friend’s home located in Springwood for a gathering over lunch. Since having the car modified, I’ve been looking forward to any opportunity to take it out for a bit of a drive, and this was going to be its longest trip to stretch its legs! I think if you’re not used to doing long car commutes, getting to Springwood may feel like a trek, and although traffic wasn’t bad and the M4 has become a much better run as part of Westconnex works, it still felt like a long car trip to get there. But boy! The car drives so much better after the ECU flash!

And when we arrived in Springwood and got out of the car for the first time – “Ah! Breathe in that fresh air!” It’s definitely nice to get out of Sydney, the climate is cooler and the air is definitely crisper up there (Springwood being located 371m above sea level).

At our friend’s home we had a real nice lunch spread, each person/family bringing a dish each, and I think this is a sign of the changing times- 3-4 years ago when we last organised a similar catch-up most of us brought meat which could be cooked on the BBQ, but with the universal shift in people’s dietary habits, today we had a selection of 4-5 different salads and roast veggies, and everyone was happier and healthier because of it!

After lunch we ventured down to the Foundation Day celebrations – an annual street market which shuts down the main commercial strip in Springwood (Macquarie Road) to motorised traffic, turning the town centre into a festive atmosphere! For a good 20 min stroll in either direction, you’d find yourself in the midst of the markets- lining both sides of Macquarie Road were stalls selling trinkets; stalls promoting local interest groups; stalls cooking up fragrant food to feed the masses; and 3 stages were set up for live music acts to entertain the crowds (each stage set up far enough apart to be out-of-ear-shot of each other.

And after soaking up enough rays and atmosphere, we headed back to our friend’s home for dessert and coffees, before we eventually had to head back down the mountain, back to life, back to reality in the big-smoke.

If you would like to check out Springwood and Foundation Day for next year, do it now! Grab your phone and schedule in a reminder into your Google calendar for early March- to alert your future self to look-up the date of the 2020 Springwood Foundation Day celebrations. Foundation Day is usually held between early March and late April- methinks the variation of dates is dependent on where Easter lands each year. I highly recommend Springwood, it’s definitely worth your while to head part-way up the mountain to experience another part of Sydney! And time your visit to coincide with the Foundation Day celebrations- it was all very festive and full of community atmosphere!

Exploring- Picton

A perfect weekend escape for Sydney-siders who want a change of pace after a busy week of go, go, and go of the Sydney rat-race.

Picton is a town located 91Km South-West of Sydney CBD via the Hume Motorway, the most common way to get out  to the sprawling expanses of P-town is by car (roughly an hour and 10 minute drive using the Hume Motorway). But for us, we used a more circuitous route today to get to Picton.

Aside from my interests of Food & Drink, audio entertainment, and exploring our fair city, an enduring interest of mine are cars. Not all shapes and sizes, not all makes and models, not all vehicles 4 wheeled or two-ed, but specifically…sports cars! So to meet other like-minded individuals, naturally my mate and I are involved with a sports car club and today was the first gathering for 2019- a cruise from Penrith to Picton for Go Karts, before a nice pub lunch at the historic George IV Inn.

What I personally love about this sports car club, is the fact that the start and end of each cruise is book-ended by food & drink! *Thumbs-up*. To jump-start the morning, the club met-up at the once bustling Krispy Kreme Sydney HQ store located in Penrith. Remember those days of late night drives with mates to Penrith KK? At the time, the one and only KK store which was open for like 24 hours a day (at least it felt like it) serving up their glazed melt-in-your-mouth original donuts. Mmmm. Remember lining-up for upwards of 45 minutes at midnight, shuffling past the glass wall where you could see the donuts being made, smelling all the sweet aromas of melting sugar…….. OMG! And when you finally reached the head of the line, ordering 1 or 2 boxes of the 12 original donuts, and another box or 2 of the assorted mixed donuts, justifying your purchases because your roommates/parents/siblings/grandparents would need to eat as well! Right? Do you remember those days? When we were more innocent, when we knew that donuts were probably bad for us, but we’d still consumed them. Well, that was all before we decided that we were too healthy for soft-drinks, fast-food, full sugar bubble tea, and of course too healthy for the Krispy  Kreme donut. Boo! So as unbelievable as this sounds, but that original Krispy Kreme store in Penrith is still trading, but it’s a far cry from what it used to be, today there were only a few patrons- a couple of mum’s catching-up over coffee (pretty sure no donuts in front of them) and then a group of guys with their sports cars rocked-up. Haaha. But as our fellow car club members rolled in, after saying our ‘hi, how ya doin’, they too went next door for a more healthy breakfast option- McDonalds. *Shrugs*.

But after hanging-out at a long table for more than a dozen, with our Krispy Kreme coffees and giving adequate time for those who always rock-up late – in a convoy of 9 sports cars we headed off on a 60 minute south-bound cruise to Picton, where we had a date with an open air track, an unlimited speed limit, but with a kart that didn’t go beyond 70km/h.

62 Km down Silverdale Road connects the West to the South-West, (on paved, not the smoothest of roads), which at points reached speeds which you’d never dream to reach in Sydney suburbia; we had a chance to stretch our sports cars legs, allow our engines to breathe in the fresh country air and clear their  throaty exhausts. We cruised past bushland, farms, and with only 1 speed bump, and 2 roundabouts along the way to encourage us to slow down, all too soon we had reached Picton, the outer limits of sprawling Sydney.

A characteristic of this particular sports car club, is the fact that a number of members are keen Go Karters! So when the opportunity arises, we incorporate a car cruise in-line with track and Go Kart availability.

Picton Karting Track- 200 Picton Road Illawarra

We elected ‘Arrive and Drive’, where you just show-up and you and your group are assigned to the next available group of people who are going out on track. Today’s wait was only 20 mins long and after paying $70 for 2x 15 minute sessions (+$10 License fee which is valid for 12 months) we were on-track and pushing the little Go karts as hard as they could go on little 6 inch tyres- the chassis, engine, human combo  reaching up-to 70Km/h on the back straight.

After expending enough adrenaline to leave us worn-out, muscles aching, sweaty and hungry, we came in after our cool down lap and compared lap times. The quickness of a Karter is dependent on the inter-play between 3 variables – the height/weight of the individual; the set-up and maintenance history of the kart; and the Driver’s natural feel for manoeuvring a 4 wheeled vehicle around curves and corners.  So understandably lap-times were varied and reflected these critical attributes, the fast will always be fast, while the slower guys will ……. Well, putting it nicely, could benefit from more practice laps and the jettison of any excess weight? Jks Jks. But everyone enjoyed themselves regardless of their standings, and with the need for speed and excitement met, the next need to be met on Maslow’s pyramid of needs, was drink and food! In that order!

George IV Inn- 180 Argyle Street, Picton

And heading back to the town’s centre, we located the historical George IV Inn-  and parked our pride and joys in a spacious car park (parking is hard to come by along the main drag of Picton), but this lot was a short short walk from the Inn. The big George is a rambling single story estate, said to be one of the oldest hotels in Australia (built in 1819- Wow! It’s 200 years old this year!); but it definitely didn’t look its age- methinks an extensive renovation occurred recently as everything looked and felt new, the place was gloriously cool, AC blowing out strong to keep diners comfortable (rainy in Sydney today, but sunny with some clouds and top of 23 in Picton). The Bistro had an extensive menu, with the usual pub favourites, but on-top of those staples, there was an extensive grill menu, a more gourmet listing, Chef’s recommendations, and a list of pizzas. I think since we’ve started this blog, we still haven’t had pizzas, so craving something cheesy, I ordered the ‘Big George Pizza’, while the others ordered all different sorts of stuff, from steaks to seafood pastas, vegetarian dishes to burgers. And way before putting in our food orders, we grabbed our drinks (as I had mentioned it was higher on the priority list than the food), so as we chatted with the guys and their partners (sports cars and go karts isn’t just a dude’s thing, but    many guys bring their significant others), we sipped on our refreshing IPAs (surprisingly bitter though).

When the food arrived (all at the same time- pretty impressive considering there were 10 of us with food with wide ranging cook-times), we all tucked in, and my Big George wasn’t just big by name, it was BIG! It had 3 types of meat on it from spicy salami to grilled chicken pieces, with a nice thick, yet thin pizza crust. And you know when it’s just the right thickness when the centre of the pizza isn’t all limp and soggy, but soft while still able to keep its pointy tip when picked-up. And since we had an early start and had skipped breakfast- oh yeah! The pizza hit the spot! But like I said, it was a Big boy, so after 2 slices I was already offering to others to take a slice if they wanted; and after 4 slices I was done, really done  (and there were still another 4 slices left!). So for $24 (not bad for country-town pub prices) I was filled and I even had pizza to go (fed us tonight as well!).

And after chatting for another 30 mins, sadly all good things must come to an end and we said our farewells in the car park (dudes checking out each other’s rides), and we made the trek back to Sydney- up the Hume Motorway and didn’t stop at a single traffic light until we reached Zetland! Which is 50 mins into a 70 min drive, not a bad run hey?

This time we didn’t get much of a chance to check-out all that Picton has to offer, but if you came out here with the family, there is so much to see and do! Picton is a well preserved historic town. There is a 29 stop self-guided walking tour which can guide your visit; pick-up a map from the Wollondilly Visitor Information Centre (look for the old Post Office with the clock-tower).  Allow the self-guided tour to take you on a stroll to the original Picton Court House (built in 1864); Post Office with historic clock tower (1892); Commercial Banking Company of Sydney Building (1885); St Marks Anglican Church (1857); and of course the historic George IV Inn (1819), to name a few stops along the way.

If you’re an active soul, you’ll love the Picton Botanical Gardens with 9Km of cycling and walking tracks through the landscape gardens- giving visitors a brilliant view of the surrounding vistas and there is an amusing bottlebrush maze for the kids to get lost in.

And if your kids love Thomas and trains in general, a bit further out from Picton is Trainworks, located in Thirlmere. Claiming to be the oldest and the largest train museum, (yes you read right, the oldest and the largest!) it boasts of many historic trains, and it marries the old with the new- the exhibits come to life with 3D holograms of people who used to work on the trains, telling their story and explaining the workings of the locomotives. Pretty cool hey!? Open 7 days a week, 9am – 5pm on the weekends.

For more information about the area and things to see and do in Picton visit this great web-site!

And of course there is Picton’s main street, including a variety of gift shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs. For a listing of all the things to see and do in the Wollondilly shire, check out this link:

Can you spend an entire day in Picton and surrounds? Heck yeah! There is so much to see and do! You could stay the night and spend an entire weekend out here! Or alternatively, come back on several different weekend day trips, for kids who fall asleep as soon as they get into the car, the 70 min car trip is idyllic!! I can’t recommend more highly the virtues of the W-shire!! Like most outdoor heavy destinations, visiting either in early autumn or late spring would be ideal. And if you’re into cars like me, replicating our cruise from Penrith to Picton via Silverdale Rd is also an idea which you can add to your list of potential weekend activities. Not to mention, as it’s becoming more and more popular to have ‘Walking’ meetings with colleagues, a ‘Driving’ catch-up with mates is pretty cool as well! In each of our hour-long point to point stretches from CBD to Penrith; Penrith to Picton; Picton back to the city, the time passed so quickly as my mate and I chatted all the way.

P.S. Apologies for the lack of photos, today was a spousal free-day, so unfortunately my wife’s photography prowess wasn’t on hand to add colour to this otherwise drab post.

Exploring- Balmain

Darling St, Balmain

Balmain is a suburb located 6Km West of Sydney CBD, a peninsular jutting out into Sydney harbour; home to many residents and the home to Darling Street, a vibrant 5-6 block commercial strip.

How to get there? Balmain is a short (approx. 15 min) bus trip from the CBD, departing from York Street (behind the Queen Victoria Building). The 442 bus will get you there, making multiple stops along Darling Street (Adult Opal fare $2.20 each way).

On the last day of 2018 we started our day trip to Balmain by making the short walk to the York street bus stops, or better known as the back-side of the Queen Victoria Building (or these days better known as the side of the building not impacted by the light rail construction). Walking down the line of bus stops, look for signage for the 442 bus, this bus performs a continuous loop into Balmain and surrounding suburbs before looping back around to the City.

Within 5 mins our 442 bus arrived, and a fair few people boarded (this was around 10.30am on a Monday), so much so that we probably got the last 2 seats on the bus.

The bus ride over to Balmain is surprisingly quick, as soon as the bus pulled out it must have gotten all the green lights; so that the first time we stopped we had already made it over the ANZAC bridge and we were already in Rozelle (the suburb just before Balmain). The final 1.5Km into Balmain was slower though, stopping to drop off passengers at each stop and navigating narrow residential streets. But soon enough we were at the start of Darling Street (the Rozelle end), where we got off the bus and continued on foot.

Darling Street is the main strip which runs from one end to the other end of Balmain, with intersecting streets branching off the spine of the suburb like ribs. In all directions you end up going, i.e. walking down the length of Darling Street to the east end, you’ll eventually reach the water. And if you went left or right down the streets which branched off Darling Street, you’d eventually hit water as well due to Balmain’s peninsular make-up (I’m sure some streets will culminate in a dead-end, but water does surround most of Balmain). For this reason Balmain is an affluent suburb, the small terrace homes valued in the millions, thus these days Balmain is home to professional couples who make the short commute into the City for work.

**Note: The historical demograph of Balmain was quite different in the past, the original residents were blue collar workers who used to work on the ship yards and wharves. And these humble beginnings are still evident in present day Balmain with the large amount of historic pubs, and the modest architecture of all the shops which line both sides of Darling Street (narrow but deep 2 story commercial spaces).

On this day we were catching up with friends for lunch, so we had planned to arrive in Balmain an hour in advance to leisurely check out Balmain before we caught up with them. As we had hopped off the bus at one end of Darling Street, our plan was to walk down the left hand side and then walk back up on the other side  of the street and that would take us to lunch-time.

As we walked, we took in the shops, my initial assumption of Darling Street was that the majority of stores would be independent boutique-ie type stores. However we did find some national chain stores like Flight Centre and Chemist Warehouse along the way. The majority of stores along Darling Street can be grouped into the following categories: Food & Beverage (many cafes, ethnic cuisines, butchers/bakeries, and pubs); Fashion and Beauty (clothing stores, nail salons, beauticians, and hairdressers); and Health (pharmacies, medical centres, and massage parlours) catering for the local residents.

After 5-6 blocks the shops start to thin out, where the shop facades and overhead shelter ended and where the blazing sun beating from above started. After reaching this point, walking down another 8 blocks to the shore-line seemed less attractive (once again, our Sydney-sider mentality was showing through, how we’re not much of an outdoorsy bunch as soon as temps get into the 30s). So from that point we decided to turn back and we crossed to the other side of the street to re-trace our tracks. Along the way, we ditched off several times to check out Gladstone Park near the heritage listed Balmain Hospital (and stand under some glorious shade), a tiny arcade, and then a rando spot where we could just sit and people watch. Most people who were out and about seemed to be locals, people doing their grocery shopping, presumably before a New Year’s Eve party. Parents jogging after their kids who were on scooters. Or neighbourhood teens catching up over their summer holidays (we heard a few UAC conversations).

And unfortunately we were confronted with the reality of Zumbo Patisserie’s demise. I can still remember the time when we purposefully travelled to Balmain for Zumbo back in 2010, where I stood in-line with my folks for 45 minutes just to get inside of their front doors. And now it’s all over! A shame!

And then it was lunch time, and although a portion of restaurants were closed (don’t do lunch trade) or were closed until the New Year; there was still plenty of choice and we elected Kafeine. It was pretty crowded but the tables were turned over pretty quickly, thus the wait wasn’t long before we were seated in the cool air-con.

As we waited for our dining companions to arrive, we ordered some refreshments as we were pretty hot and sticky after walking up and down Darling Street. With a wide selection of fresh juices on offer, I had the Hangover Recovery (freshly juiced beetroot, carrot, watermelon, apple, and orange) and my wife had the Clear Skin (Freshly juiced beetroot, carrot, celery, spinach, cucumber, and orange) – I was pre-empting a big NYE night, while my wife didn’t really need hers as she already has pretty clear skin.   

Hangover Recovery (left) and Clear Skin (right) fresh juices

It was great to catch up with friends over good healthy food, Kafeine was known for its healthy and vegan options. My wife ordered Mushroom Goodness, I had the Corn Fritters, my mate had the Samurai Burger (fish burger), and his wife the Lunch Bowl with tofu and soba noodles (their 15 month old ate bits from both of their dishes, and snacks from her lunch-box. Awwww cute!).

My corn fritters was sweet from the corn kernels, sour from the cherry tomatoes, healthy feeling from the leafy greens, substantial because of the large piece of grilled ham, and texturally interesting as the fritter had a crunchy baked top. All very tasty, while being healthy and hitting the spot.

After lunch, it was pretty much time to head back home; as we wanted to beat the crowds back before everyone started to head into the city for a prime spot to see the fireworks.

Getting back, you just need to catch the 442 again, but this time on the opposite side of the street from where you had originally gotten off. The wait for the bus was around 10 mins, and once you’re on the bus, the trip into the city is just as quick; in moments you’re on Market Street and free to get on with your day. Or alternatively there is a scenic option, you can catch a ferry from one of several wharves, which will transport you to Circular Quay (a nice option if you have the time).

What else can you do in Balmain? If you’re young enough (while old enough) you could do a killer pub crawl, there are many, I mean MANY pubs/historical hotels in Balmain for you to try! Get ready for the list (unfortunately some have stopped trading): Cat and Fiddle Hotel, Cricketer’s Arms Hotel, Dick’s Hotel, Dry Dock Hotel, Exchange Hotel, Fourth and Clyde Hotel, Kent Hotel, London Hotel, Mort Bay Hotel, Norfolk Pines Hotel, Pacific Hotel, Riverside Hotel, Royal Oak Hotel, Ship Rites Arms Hotel, Star Hotel, Town Hall Hotel, Unity Hall Hotel, Volunteer Hotel, and the West End Hotel (the names alone already hint at Balmain’s colonial and working class history). And if your liver is still operational, and you can focus with a full bladder, you might be able to ask around and find some historical points of reference to the Australian Labor Party? As the ALP first started in Balmain back in the 1890s.

If you have kids who are keen cyclists or pushers (what do you call one who rides scooters?), perhaps drive to Balmain and pack the bike/scooter. As Mort Bay Park has an idyllic path suitable for the young-ones to safely cycle/push around. While the ones old enough to appreciate a good vantage point, may enjoy the incredible views of the back-side of the Harbour Bridge (a spot many flock to during NYE to view the fireworks).

And there are plenty of restaurants/cafes in Balmain, according to Zomato, Balmain alone has 103 places to eat and drink at. Some notable restaurants are Contessa (Modern Australian); Efendy (Turkish); Nutie Donuts Balmain (Desserts); Riverview Hotel (Pub); Euforia (café); and The Cottage Bar and Kitchen (Wine bar).

Final thoughts, Balmain is a quaint suburb to visit, a great location to catch-up with friends over brunch/lunch/dinner as a mid-way meeting point. Perhaps there is not enough to see and do in Balmain to keep you entertained for an entire day, but for a feed and perhaps an hour on either side of your meal, there is plenty to explore in Balmain. Let me know in the comments section if you ventured to the Peninsula, and/if you visited any of the historical hotels and gave your liver a work-out…or a beating. Haaha.  

Exploring- Chatswood

When you’re on holidays overseas, you do your research and pinpoint areas where you want to go, restaurants you want to eat at, and time your visits to maximise what you can see and do. But why can’t we extend this same level of preparedness to visiting a suburb in our own fair city? Turn a regular weekend into an inexpensive weekend adventure? Become a tourist in our own ‘backyard’?

So here starts our monthly exploration of suburbs in and around Sydney, starting with the City in the North, Chatswood!

Chatswood is located 10Km North of Sydney CBD, and is a major commercial and retail district for peeps in the North Shore. A go-to for shopping, entertainment, restaurants, and a hang-out place for locals in the North Shore area…And with the soon to be completed Hills to Chatswood Metro train line, an alternative destination for those living in the Hills District if they want a change from their current go-to shopping and entertainment precincts.  

How to get there? Chatswood is only a 20 minute train trip from Town Hall train station. Trains depart frequently (no more than a 10 minute wait at most). Catch the train on the T1 North shore line ($4.40 adult Opal fare each way).

On this summer’s day we set out during the hottest part of the day and it was noticeably warmer in Chatswood, compared to Sydney CBD. Stepping off the train and walking down Victoria Avenue, you were reminded that Chatswood is a City in its own right, but it is also set in the suburbs. The sounds of cicadas chirping in the heat, an odd combination to the otherwise city feel of Chatswood.

Arriving by train, the vast majority of shops and restaurants are located along or just off the main strip of Chatswood which is Victoria Avenue. So as you walked to wherever you’re aiming for, there is much to see and many distractions (good distractions) along the way. For example, on Thursdays and Fridays there are the Melody markets (food and craft stalls along the pedestrianised portion of Victoria Ave – otherwise known as Chatswood Mall). Although today was a Thursday, unfortunately the stalls were not set up due to that weird time in between Christmas and New Year’s. But from previous visits to Chatswood, we remembered the mall being lined with food and craft stalls, good to experience if you can time your visit to Chatswood right.

On this visit to Chatswood, in my mind I’d dubbed this visit a ‘Chatswood mall crawl!’ The aim was to duck in and out of the 8 shopping centres/Malls/Arcades located within the Chatswood CBD to take in what each centre had to offer. So with a list, we began our Mall crawl. **Musings: If an individual who hangs-out all day long at a mall is known as a ‘Mall Rat’. Then being promiscuous and seeing many malls at one time, will we be known as a ‘Mall Cat’? If so, that’s fitting, considering Chat is French for cat! …… I’m channelling my inner Jonathan Goldstein with that musing.

Mall 1: Chatswood Chase- We first went to the furthest of the shopping centres with the aim to work our way back towards the train station for our departure. Chase is the second largest mall in Chatswood, and used to be known as the ‘classier’ mall, with the higher end clothing stores. But I’m not sure if it’s changed over time, or perhaps I’m just older and the brands don’t wow me anymore, but the brands now all seemed like your regular run-of-the-mill chain stores. So 4 stories to the top, and a basement food court at the very bottom,  it was a nice stop along the way and small enough that we could easily walk the length and breadth of each floor. On a sensory level, the air con was nice and cold (revitalising us) and oddly the whole entire centre was fragranced by the same perfume (they must’ve piped it into the air ducts), so the entire place smelt very pleasant indeed.

Chatswood Chase Shopping Mall

Mall 2: Westfield Chatswood- A short walk in the direction back towards the train station and on the other side of the street (still on Victoria Ave) is the much larger Westfield Chatswood. It’s so large that getting in and out you’d always appear and reappear from a completely different entrance/exit, needing to walk around kind of lost for a bit trying to regain your bearings. By far Westfield was where everyone was; don’t get me wrong, Chase had a fair few people but Westfields had many many more. There was just a hub-bub of many people moving and talking at the same time. Westfield has 5 levels, each level quite large so we didn’t do a circuit of each. But we caught the escalators all the way up to the top floor, and by that time we already got a little bit hungry and gave in to our rumbling tummies and we made our way all the way back down to the ground floor food court.

A couple of years back Westfield installed Hawker Lane, a corner of the   food court devoted to Asian eateries. The stalls lined up one-after-the-other with seating down the centre. So we made our way to this part of the food court and found stores from all your usual Asian cuisines, e.g. Malaysian, Vietnamese, dumplings etc. And after making a round, we actually opted for Indian (Chachu’s). On their menu they promoted their Signature Roll, and being a sucker for trying what a restaurant is known for, my wife and I both opted for a roll and for an extra $4.50 we made our rolls into a meal (includes drink and a side). I opted for a Crispy chicken roll, fried chilli potato and apple juice (yeah, I know….. I’m consuming processed sugars again after being off it for 7 months); while my wife had the Saffron roasted chicken roll, garlic naan and Mango Lassi (for an extra $1.50 on-top-of-the meal price).

Hawker Lane at Westfield food court

Armed with a buzzer (that was great! As it suggested that our food was made to order), we sat on high stools in the centre of Hawker Lane. And after a short wait, we were called back for our food. We didn’t know what to expect with our ‘Indian rolls’, methinks it’s naan-traditional? (get it…..naan-traditional, as opposed to “non-traditional”? Yes/No?!?). But we were pleasantly surprised that it was like a wrap, the wrap being a thin tortilla which had been pan fried so that the outside was blistered and flaky! My crispy chicken bits were well-sized, lightly battered, tender chicken tenders, which reminded me a bit of a chicken wrap from KFC, i.e. lettuce, and a mayo-like sauce, but having tasty Indian flavours, and additional Indian herbs/spice fillings. My wife was pleased with her roll as well, it was spicy but not just a ‘hot’ spicy, but a ‘tasty’ spicy. Although our sides were a bit hit and miss. The spicy potato was interesting enough, it was a potato mash, with all sorts of spices mixed into it, but then it was re-shaped back into a potato shape, and then deep fried. So the outside was nice and crunchy, while the inside was soft and melty. It came with a chilly dipping sauce, but it was tasty enough without it. But the garlic naan was a miss, it was stale so we gave up on it (but we were already quite full by then). And lastli, the Mango Lassi was really tasty, not like a smoothie (as a smoothie is watered down with juice), but the Lassi was more like a yoghurt but liquid enough that you could drink it with a straw. Very tasty, refreshing and filling at the same time. So when we were done eating we were very satisfied, and satisfied to kick onto the next mall on our list.

Our neatly packaged lunch from Chachu’s

Mall 3: Mandarin Centre- By this time when we re-emerged from Westfields (from another completely different exit) it had gotten hotter again, so the prospect of hunting around for the 6 other smaller arcades seemed a little less appealing now. What can I say? Sydney-siders only enjoy the great-outdoors when the weather is in-between 20 and 28 degrees, anything more or less, and we’re more than happy to remain indoors. So we just walked past Victoria Arcade and made a beeline to the Mandarin Centre (the third largest of the malls in Chatswood).

Mandarin Centre

One thing about me, is that I’m predictable and bound by routine. So for the past few years, always at this time in-between Christmas and New Year’s, I’d come out to Chatswood> Mandarin Centre> Trade Secret to buy a new pair of jeans, adding it to the “jean rotation”. While saying that, last year we must have skipped our annual Jean Day as in the interim Trade Secret had been taken over by TK Maxx, and European chain which did something similar i.e. offered designer brands at a discounted price. But unfortunately the store wasn’t quite the same, yes the stock was now more orderly, but there were less things on offer. In the past there were so many designer jeans to choose from, you could narrow down your search by size, cut, brand, and then colour. In past years, I’d have 5 pairs to try on, to select the best fitting one. But this time they only had 2 racks in total, and no surprise I couldn’t find even one pair in my size. Boo! So we left empty handed, so I guess after years of scoring designer jeans for half of the RRP, its back to General Pants Co for full-priced jeans. *Sad look*.

But when leaving the Mandarin Centre, this image did cheer us up though!  

Giant panda at Mandarin Centre

Mall 4-8: Chatswood Interchange, Lemon Grove, The Gallery, Victoria Plaza, and Orchard Arcade. Unfortunately we didn’t have the stamina to locate and walk the 5 smaller centres/mall/arcades. But maybe you can continue where we left off? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.

After the Mandarin centre, we started to develop separation anxiety from our beloved Sydney CBD, so we went home. Haaha.

What else is in Chatswood? If you drove, you can visit Windsor Gardens and Seven Gables (both heritage listed sites).

And there are plenty of restaurants located in the centres/malls/arcades and on the street level for you to try. According to Zomato, you have 301 bars and restaurants to choose from in Chatswood alone! Some notable restaurants are Manpuku (Japanese/Ramen); Burger Patch (Trending Burger Joint); Kho Pla (Thai); Mamak (Malaysian); or Chimichuri (café), and many many more!

Final thoughts, Chatswood is like any other major central business district, but still worth checking out if you haven’t been recently. And if you’re looking for something in particular (retail wise) and willing to hang around for both lunch and dinner you can most definitely turn a visit to Chatswood into a whole day trip! Enjoy!