Tokyo, Day 1

Tokyo, Day 1

Getting to Tokyo:

In 2015, we treated my dad to a trip to Peru for his 65th birthday. That trip was so amazing that my mom wanted to fast-forward her b-day trip to her 60th (typical mom!) and she wanted to go to Japan. After 7 months of researching and planning, our late March / early April cherry-blossom-season Japan trip was in full swing. My mom, dad, and sister flew in to Tokyo Friday night and Ryan and I arrived Saturday afternoon to start our two week journey.

After navigating the busy Tokyo Airport, grabbing our (very worth it) Rail Pass, hopping a few trains and walking through markets with our luggage, we arrived at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Since there were 5 of us, my sister Julia was bouncing between staying with my parents and bunking with Ryan and I. The Shinjuku had this really cool loft suite so we started the trip off with a sleepover!

We unpacked and took a quick shower before hitting the streets to find some food. We ended up at a sushi train place with melt-in-your-mouth sushi! All 5 of us got our fill of so many types of seafood for only $50 total. It was a very impressive start to our culinary part of the trip.

After we filled up, we walked back through the crowded streets to our hotel for some much needed sleep.

Day 1:

Thank goodness for Melatonin. If you don’t know what that is, it is a natural sleep aid that tells your body when it is time for bed. When you are traveling and in a place with a totally different time zone, like Tokyo which is 14 hours ahead of Dallas, it helps you reset your body clock. My sister, Ryan, and I all had a gummy version of it before bed, slept like logs, and woke up ready for an 8 hour tour day!

We met my parents in the lobby of the Shinjuku Granbell hotel at 8:15 AM to grab breakfast before our tour guide arrived. It was only 40 degrees outside and it took one step out the door for me to start patrolling for a heavier jacket when we passes markets and shops. We walked about 5 minutes down to road to a more Americanized breakfast place for coffee called Tully’s. Ryan had half a ham and egg sandwich and pancakes to load up for the day and I had a coffee. This is going to sound really strange, but my sister and I both opted instead to go to 7-Eleven for breakfast. 7-Elevens in Japan look similar to those in the US but are much different. They have a wider variety of fresh food and are much cleaner / nicer. I had heard the rumors about them and read tons of info online so my sister and I decided to Japanese foods from there instead of the American place. I grabbed a pork version of the triangular shaped rice balls stuffed with meats, veggies, or fish, a steamed pork bun, and Korean rice ball. All three were really different but tasty! I don’t know how I feel yet about seaweed for breakfast though, according to our guide, traditional Japanese breakfasts consist of rice, veggies, fish, and always, always miso soup.

After our 7-Eleven stop, we went back to the hotel to chow down and wait for Misa, our 8 hour, private tour guide. She showed up right at 9:30 in a sun hat, fur-lined hooded jacket, and boots. Her face was bright and personality brighter, and we all hit it off with her immediately. She gave us an overview of the customized tour for the day and we headed off to tour gardens.

Our hotel was located in the middle of the Shinjuku district. While it is a modern, 4-star variety hotel, it is surrounded but all of these other themed hotels which were really interesting looking and strange. A lot of them had pictures of the various rooms in front of the hotels and private entrances. Misa told us that they were all “love” hotels that can be rented by the hour. Apparently, most of the houses in Tokyo are very small and people live in very close proximity with paper thin walls. To get privacy, most people in the city, from young lovers to parents, go to these “love hotels” and it is a widely accepted but secretive process. That conversation definitely brought a new perspective to our ideas of our neighborhood!

It was about a 20-minute walk to the garden and the sun was finally starting to poke out. For the sake of time, we decided to walk the Japanese portion of the garden only, about 1/3 of the full experience. There were some large and beautiful white flowering trees and the cheery blossoms were starting to bud as well!

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My mom was ecstatic when she saw her first blossom. After all, the blooming of the trees was the reason we booked our trip at the end of March! The cherry blossoms bloom from mid-March-May all over Tokyo and are so beautiful.

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After about 45 minutes of taking in the garden, we took off to our first temple. Along the way, Misa had us try these fried red bean and sweet potato fish snacks. They were so hot they burnt by tongue, but were delicious and so cute!

Misa reloaded our Suica cards and we hopped on the train. I have to say, public transit in Tokyo is so well signed and easy once you get the hang of it!

We walked to the Meiji Shrine entrance and bowed in respect. We saw a lot of girls dressed up in kimonos while we walked. Misa told us that the end of March was graduation season and that was the traditional dress for the graduation ceremony. It was super cool to see so many in their traditional garb and hear about the cultural traditions. We opted to grab some Sakura (cherry blossom) tea so we could rest for a few minutes and people-watch before heading into the temple.

The temple was huge and there were two wedding ceremonies going on while we were there. The bride’s white wedding kimonos were gorgeous and they wore these large round hats. Apparently, most kimonos are passed down from generation to generation and cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. There were also some 100-day old babies celebrating their first 100 days of living with their parents and grand parents. Again, the mothers and grandmothers were wearing family kimonos with their family crests embroidered on them. It was a treat to see the traditional wear and ceremonies of the people.

We walked up to the shrine and threw a lucky 5 yen into the entrance to make a wish for our futures. The word 5 in Japanese, “Go”, is also the word for destiny, so throwing 5 yen helps ensure your wish for your destiny.

Our stomaches were starting to rumble and we hopped back on the subway to go to a lake teppanyaki lunch. We arrived at this random building and I would never have found the restaurant, up this tiny elevator to the the 7th floor.

We sat around massive grill and Misa taught us how to make these seafood and pork grilled pancakes. We got a big bowl consisting of tons of veggies, egg, and meat with butter on top. We put the butter on the grill and then added the meat and seafood to cook first. Then, we stirred the egg and veggies together into a doughy mix and put that on the grill. Once the meat was semi-cooked, we put it on top of the cake and then flipped it around halfway through the cook. Once done, we added bbq sauce, Japanese mayo, and fish flakes. THE END RESULT WAS SO GOOD! Misa also made us veggies and noodles.

If you go to Japan, you must try teppanyaki out after a long day of walking.

It was such a treat to have Misa show us how to make lunch. She was such a great guide for our day. After we filed up, we took off through the market streets back to the subway to make our way to our next stop, the Ueno Park. The park was quite crowded and the blossoms were also starting to appear.

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This garden is massive and surrounded by museums. Misa told us that all of the museums and buildings over 5 stories in Tokyo are on rollers so that they can withstand earthquakes! Really inventive.

Then we headed to our last stop, the Asakusa Shrine. At the forefront of the Shrine was a gate with a massive lantern. There was a very long street with vendors lining it on both sides from the 1st massive lantern all the way to the 2nd that was right in front of the main building.

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We were getting a bit overwhelmed with all of the people so we took a side street the rest of the way down to the temple. We walked down the market and Misa bought us some various treats to try like sweet rice balls and savory rice cakes with sake.

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By this point, we had been walking for 7+ hours and we were all starting to get weary. By the main gate, there were these shaker cups with numbered sticks. We shook the cup and got a random numbers that indicated which box to open to select our fortune. The fortunes were these long pieces of paper and all of them were positive, except Ryan’s, so he had to tie his to this rack so his bad fortune would “blow away in the wind’. Poor Ryan!

We were already feeling pretty low energy, so we found a vending machine and grabbed some espresso. It came out piping hot from the machine and Misa explained that drinks with red prices are hot and blue prices are cold in the same machine! Such cool technology and such a good idea to have some caffeine which helped us get home.

Misa took us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. She was such an excellent guide for our day. We decided to take a 1.5 hour nap / recharge break and met back up at 7 PM to decide on plans for the next day. My parents wanted to go back to the “Robot Sushi” aka sushi conveyer belt place again, so Ryan and I broke off to try a Ramen place. What a good idea that was! It was delicious. We split a thick wavy noodle, pork belly Ramen with gyoza and fried chicken for like $12 total including drinks. It was so good and warmed us up on the cold evening.

After dinner, we decided to check out our hotels Sky Bar. We texted my family to meet us and sat at a table under the space heaters. The staff even gave us warm, fuzzy blankets so we could enjoy the view comfortably. We had a glass of wine and discussed our itinerary for the rest of our time in Tokyo before calling it an night.

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Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney Day 5:

We enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the Kirkton Park. They had some to-die for hash browns, fresh braked bread, and yummy fruit, not to mention freshly made marshmallows for the coffee. Also, the rose garden was right out back and the gardener brought in fresh cut roses and rosemary to decorate the kitchen and tables – it was enchanting!

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After we filled up, we took off on the 2.5 hour drive back to Sydney. We saw a few kangaroos on the way back but that was about as exciting as the drive got.

We parked back at the Adina Hotel and decided to walk down to Chinatown and explore. I have fond memories of getting Dim Sum (Yum Cha) with my family on previous trips and I wanted to show Ryan around. We ended up exploring the huge market with tons of booths jammed packed with random stuff. Thankfully for my wallet, I didn’t have any cash on me so I couldn’t buy anything.

We walked up the street further into the restaurant section of Chinatown and ended up at Noodle Company. It had great reviews and all of the noodles were made fresh. We ordered pork fried noodles, sweet and sour pork, and lamb and chive dumplings. Yum!

Obviously, we should have looked at the portion sizes before ordering! Usually an order of dumplings came with 6 total and we had 12! They were sooo good and we decided to box up the rest for enjoyment later.

We were stuffed so the walk back to the Adina was welcomed. Ryan went back up to the room and I took off to the grocery store to buy a few things for home. My mom always had the best BBQ sauce imported from Australia, so I bought two bottles of bbq sauce, my moms favorite gummy snakes, and my favorite Aussie candy – Violet Crumble. Violet Crumble is chocolate covered honeycomb and is sooo yummy! I like to freeze it and it just melts in your mouth afterward. I highly recommend!

Once I got back with the groceries, it was time to catch up on some blog posts. Ryan napped and we relaxed for a few hours before deciding to go out for a pre-dinner drink. My cousins and sister were meeting us at Muum Maam for some Thai food at 8, so a pre-drink was a good way to pass the time.

We ended up walking to Lil Darlin, which looked packed and had a great happy hour – cocktails for only $10. We walked in and I saw this crazy looking pink drink that, upon glancing at the menu, consisted of cotton candy and I had to get it. So glad I did!

 

We got so much entertainment and joy out of eating the cotton candy (fairy floss in Aussie lingo). I really wanted to try all of the other yummy drinks on the menu but it was time to meet everyone up. We sat at a communal table and enjoyed some tasty pork rinds while we waited on the remaining cousins to show up. Unfortunately, our cousin’s dog was acting up right before she was heading over and she had to take him to the vet. It was a bummer that we could not see her and her husband, but we are big “dog people” and totally get it.

Anyways, we had some super yummy crispy spring rolls and duck paper rolls to start with. Ryan and I decided to share the Panang curry but we got the heart breaking news that they ran out so we ended up with some tasty Pad Thai instead. Who knew that we would be eating so much Pad Thai this trip? But I am not complaining!

After dinner, we wound up walking to an ice cream place and enjoyed some delicious macadamia nut, white chocolate ice cream. Such a great way to end the night with my awesome Aussie family!

Sydney Day 6 –

Today was Royal National Park day. We walked down to the little organic grocer down the street for a quick and delicious breakfast of rocket, aioli, bacon, avocado, and scrambled egg wraps and flat white coffee, and then we were off in our rental car to the National Park. The weather was absolutely perfect for hiking with a cool breeze that made you forget the work of the hike.

The views from the hike were awesome and the water was sooo blue!

Apparently, there was a huge brush fire in January of 2018 which wiped out 60 hectors (148 acres) of brush along the coast. While it was sad to see all of the burnt toast looking trees, there was tons of promising new growth.

The trail led us to some amazing heights,

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And some sandy, relaxing lows. We ended up snacking on apples and enjoying our beach view for a while.

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We walked for a good 1.5 hours before needing to turn around and head back to the car. We had a 5 PM drop off for the rental and didn’t want to cut our beach time short so we hustled back. It was definitely a good workout and we were thankful for the hats, sun glasses, sunscreen, and water we brought (though I think Ryan and my sister were getting annoyed with my “mom” habit of reminding them to reapply frequently!).

There was a large beach was right next to the car park so we took a detour before heading out. My sister and I got our feet wet and had a good time reflecting on our time in Aussie as kids and now. It was so special to spend this time with her, especially in a country of our heritage.

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We walked back to the car and tried to de-sand our legs and feet before dirtying the rentals. Our GPS showed quite a bit of traffic on the way back, so we opted to stop at a food court for some of the best butter chicken curry with naan bread I have ever had. It was so good that I ate all of it before snapping a pic. Oops!

Thankfully for us, traffic cleared up when we got back on the road, so the drive back into Sydney was easy. Getting the rental car back, however, was not so easy. The driveway was not clearly, marked and we definitely drove up the wrong way to trying to get in! It took us even more time to go down all 7 levels to our car drop-off. We got dizzy driving around and around so much!

Finally, we made it successfully and walked back to the hotel for much needed showers. We still had some delicious herb feta cheese and Semillon wine from the Hunter Valley in the day prior and enjoyed that while packing the rest of the evening. Our flight home was bright and early the next day.

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The Hunter Valley – Day 2

The Hunter Valley – Day 2

WINE TOUR DAY! Today marked our full wine day experience with Two Fat Blokes wine tours. We had a delicious breakfast at the Kirkton Hotel (that was included), went and checked out the smelly pigs in their barn, and got picked up for our tour promptly at 9:30 AM. Our super energetic guide, Julie, told us to keep our eyes out for kangaroos as we set out to pick up additional guests. It was only about 10 minutes into our drive to the next stop that we saw a bunch of them in the bush! It was so awesome to see them hopping around in the wild.

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We picked up a total of 10 other people and were on our way to our first winery by 10 AM. Apparently we were a bit early so Julie took us to her “secret” kangaroo spot in a vineyard. We pulled up and there must have been about 100 of them all hanging out along the road! It was so cool to see – there were even some mums with their joeys!

After snapping a few pictures, we were back in the bus and off to Mistletoe Winery. The vineyard was very pretty and chockablock with beautiful sculptures in the yard and an art gallery inside.

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We all lined up at the bar and started our tasting. The lady leading that tasting told us to be aware that, if we drank all of the wine at all of the tastings we would be drinking 2-2.5 bottles of wine each! Not including the glass of wine included for lunch and 3 beers at the brewery stop at the end of the day! Geesh! I usually never waste wine but that knowledge made it easier to just taste some of the pours I didn’t prefer. (I am a light weight after all!)

Our second stop was the Two Fat Blokes wine and cheese shop to sample 9 cheeses with 9 wines! We were taken to this cute room in the back of the shop and had quite the spread.

We were told to have a bite of the cheese to get the full flavor, sip the wine, and then have another bite of the cheese to see how that flavor changes with the wines influence. It was pretty substantial! I love cheese and wine so I was in truly a happy place! There was this feta with chives that was so to-die-for we bought some to share with my sister back in Sydney.

After we ate all of our cheese, we relaxed in the winery grounds for 15 minutes before heading to the next place for lunch. I was glad some hearty food was coming our way because I needed something to soak up all of the yummy wine (as you may start to tell from the photos moving forward)!

Our next stop was the Audrey Wilkinson winery. Julie told us that the wine makers used Audrey’s old photo as the logo for the winery and on all of the bottles. A few years in, an older local man came into the winery and asked why they used a photo of Audry’s brother as the main logo for the winery! Apparently, the wine makers didn’t realize the mistake but already had brand recognition and all of their marketing materials with the brother and not Audrey. To fix the problem, the took the photo of Audry’s head and photo shopped it on his brothers body to keep similar imagery. How crazy, right?

We had lunch on the veranda of the winery. Lunch was included with the tour and I assumed it was going to be something like our fabulous lunch on our Tuscany wine tour, but I was a bit wrong. We brought the lunch in coolers from the Two Fat Blokes restaurant and it consisted of pretty average cold meats, salad, and pasta salad. I was slightly disappointed but the rest of the day was so amazing that it did not bug me too much.

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Lunch’s disappointment quickly evaporated as we went inside after we ate for yet another tasting! We started with a Semillon, a wine specific to the Hunter Valley that has strong notes of lemon and lime. The white wines at Audrey were a little to tart for my taste, so we did not buy any, but they were still decent. The best was the desert wine at the end. It was delicious and our host even gave me extra when I finished mine first and joked that I never got any to start with!

The view from the winery was beautiful and we had to snap a pic – even our guide Julie wanted to be included!

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After another quick ride on the bus, we arrived at winery number 4, Ivanhoe. It also had amazing views and we sat on the porch tasting about 7 wines. Our host at this winery was very lively and apparently worked at Disney for several years so he could travel the world to the various parks. What a great way to see the world!

Our last winery for the day was one of my favorites because it included the chocolate pairing! We had 4 chocolates to taste with 7 different wines and they were soooo yummy (at least that is how I fuzzily remember it at this point). Ryan and I bought two bottles of wine and a few of the white chocolate coconut truffles to share with my sister. One of the bottles we bought had a picture that was supposed to be Marylin Monroe but she didn’t look anything like her.  She didn’t even have her signature mole! We still bought it though since, apparently on trips, we randomly buy things related to Marilyn like we did in Santa Fe!

We were getting very chummy and silly with the rest of our tour group by this point and the photo bombing continued at a hilarious pace!

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One last bus ride later we arrived at Hunter Valley Beer Co. – a micro brewery that only serves the surrounding area. The beer was pretty good and I know this because I usually don’t like beer and I LIKED the beer at HVB. We played some Aussie beer trivia (which I quickly lost at) and then got a tour of the beer making process. It was a nice way to end our big day.

Julie did a fabulous job of getting all of us safely back to our accommodation. One guy even drunkenly ran out of the bus at our hotel to go pee in a bush. That took us all by surprise!

Ryan and I had a 6:30 reservation for dinner at the hotel restaurant because we definitely we re not driving anywhere at that point. It was a set menu and we were already pretty full, so we decided to cancel our reso and get a pizza from the bar instead. We played pool while waiting and I did not get one single ball in! Of course, that had nothing to do with my skill and everything to do with the wine… right?!

Our dinner was served at the bar and my award-winning food photography skills really captured my bbq pork pizza….

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It truly was delicious though! After we filled up and I gave up trying to win at pool games, we relaxed on the patio of our room with another glass of wine before zonking out.

Continue on this adventure…

The Hunter Valley – Day 1

The Hunter Valley – Day 1

We had an early start to the day so we could walk to the Pullman Hotel in Sydney to pick up our Europcar rental for our drive to the Hunter Valley. It was weird picking the car up from a luxury hotel lobby, but Europcar had a kiosk there. I picked the cheapest, tiniest car to save some money and the rental guy tried for far to annoyingly long to upgrade our car to a Mercedes for an extra $30 a day. He finally gave us the keys and we headed down 7 levels UNDER ground to our car park. The hotel was 30 stories and 7 of those went below ground – so crazy to think about the engineering that goes into such a structure!

We drove the car around and around and around the 7 floors back up to street level and took off on our journey. One of my uncles and his wife live in an Crate & Barrel magazine worthy house about half way to the Hunter, and they invited us over for coffee and lunch. We had a blast catching up with them, playing with their dogs, and getting a quick tour of their gardens that grow almost everything! The list we got was passion fruit, pumpkins, asparagus, bananas, apples, limes, macadamia nuts, and they even have chickens for fresh eggs! I am so jealous they could grow so many fruits and veggies on their property.

They also treated us to a delicious lunch with the most amazing view of the ocean. I had some lamb and mint tacos and Ryan had the southwestern ones. The tacos were much bigger than expected and we were stuffed!

We had a great time talking about Iron Man races (my uncle has run several!), working out, our family, and our many travels. My uncle and aunt are also avid travelers – the apple didn’t fall far from the tree! Time flew and, before we knew it, we had to take off for our 1.5 hour drive to the Hunter Valley.

The drive was windy and scenic. We were surprised that the speed limits were so slow on the highways – most of it was only 80 KPH (50 MPH) with max speeds of 110 KPH (68 MPH). My lead foot was not impressed!

We finally arrived around 3:30 and I was so happy that we chose to stay at the Kirkton Hotel. It was so charming! It was an older but totally remodeled complex and our room, again, looked like something from a Z Gallery magazine. We had a stunning view as well.

We had a quick change raced over to Tempus Two Cellar for some wine tasting. My family and I went to Tempus Two when I was young and my mom must have shipped 20 bottles of their dessert wine to us in the USA. Since then, every holiday dinner was celebrated with a small glass of it for everyone, including my sister and I when we were like 12. The wine brings back so many good memories of happy holiday times I had to go and get more.

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We sampled a variety of wines and didn’t taste one we didn’t like. When we got to the dessert wine, Ryan totally and finally understood “the hype” and we bought two bottles, one for us and one to share with my parents when we got home (maybe…..).

Tempus Two closed at 5 PM and there was a Thai / Japanese restaurant in the same complex next store that was recommended for dinner. It opened at 5:30 so we decided to enjoy a bottle of wine on the patio until then. We were looking for kangaroos since they were supposed to come out at dusk, but only saw magpies and cars. The wine was great and it was very relaxing.

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At 5:30, the restaurant opened and we walked over to find out that their grill was broken and only 1/3 of their menu was available. Both Ryan and I had our heart set on Pad Thai so we Googled the closest Thai place and went their instead. Ryan got the Pad Thai and I had some super tasty Panang curry!

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After dinner, we went back to the hotel and decided to explore a bit. The hotel had a heated indoor pool and hot tub. It smelled too heavily of chlorine so we opted skipped that. We also heard that there was a barn with two week old piglets on the property but it was too dark to find them so we ended up going back to the room and promptly fell asleep.

Continue on this adventure…

 

Sydney, Day 4

We got up around 8 and, after a yummy breakfast or Weetabix (an Aussie staple), my aunt was nice enough to drive us to the Taronga Park Zoo! On the way, we stopped at where my mom and her family grew up in the cove right next to the zoo. My aunt showed us their old house / stomping grounds. It was really cool to see. Apparently, they used to walk over to the zoo and hop the fence to get in! The view from their house was not bad either…

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We got to the zoo relatively early so there were not a ton of people. It is right in the harbor across from the Sydney Opera House and all of the animals have an amazing view!

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We got to hang out with Kangaroos, wallabies, cuddly koalas…

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…red pandas, and other of my favorite animals. The Zoo overall is very well done with great exhibits awesome plant life! I highly recommend a visit!

We were in the zoo for about 4.5 hours before it was time to take the Skyrail down to the harbor side exit.

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We hopped on the ferry to get over to the Sydney Opera House. It was such a beautiful day too – we got very lucky.

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Once docked, we grabbed some very expensive but average gelato. It made our stroll much more enjoyable and we found the perfect spot on the steps of the House to take it all in ( a good view makes everything better!). After that, we walked through the botanical gardens behind the Sydney Opera House and back to the hotel for a refresh before dinner at PhoMo right on the waterside.

We hopped on the train to get to Barangaroo area in downtown where there are strings of restaurants along the harbor. We were meeting my sister and her friends for dinner at PhoMo so we grabbed a few glasses of wine while we waited. It was the perfect temperature out and all of the patios were “chockablock” with people! Once our party of 8 arrived, we moved to the table and ordered some delicious soft shell crab spring rolls and rare beef pho. A few of the girls had never had pho soup before and they quickly fell in love with it – seriously the best!

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My sister’s friends were from all over the world and were all temporarily living in Sydney. It was awesome to hear their stories of how they got to Aussie and how they met my sister. I was pretty proud of my husband, Ryan, for being the only guy at the table and making the most of it. We were planning to get drinks after dinner so we let Ryan head back to the train station to go home and relax.

We talked for about 30 minutes longer and, since it was a Tuesday night with a work day for everyone except me, the party disbanded. My sister and I ended up taking a cab and beat Ryan back from the train station! He had taken the train in the wrong direction and was having quite a time getting back. Even though he left 30 minutes prior, he got in a good 10 minutes after us and was so peeved (in a funny way) that we took a cab and beat him back. I have to say, this trip has been an adventure for the both of us!

Continue on this adventure…