[This blog was originally posted to MarinaV.com in March 2017.
Please forgive any possible glitches. Also, very sorry we can’t move your lovely comments!
Original post can be found at: https://www.marinav.com/food-travel ]

I spent Christmas 2016 in Australia with my mom. It was one of the most relaxing and longest vacations (14 days) I have ever had and the most time I spent with my mom since I was 15. It was incredible and also very special.

My mom has now been an Aussie for many years (worth noting her lovely Russian-Australian accent), and I have visited her a few times in the past. But this was my first Christmastime in OZ, and the warmest Christmas I have ever had! Australia lies in the Southern Hemisphere, hence our winter is their summer! They actually refer to December, January and February as summer months. I still can’t get used to this notion, but it makes it even more fun to be “down under” 🙂

I flew into Sydney (from LA via Hawaii – see my post about it) on a warm rainy “summer” evening. My mom and Ted (her wonderful husband of many years) picked me up and safely delivered me to my hotel. My trip to OZ was a very last minute decision, so I couldn’t even get a room at the hotel where they were staying. But my hotel was only a couple of blocks away from theirs. No big deal!

A few words about my hotel (Criterion on Park & Pitt): it was one of the only hotels in central Sydney that had a vacancy (and didn’t cost $500+ per night. Sydney ain’t cheap, kids!!!) Quite a contrast from my fancy Prince Hotel in Honolulu, this basic, bare bones hotel wasn’t the Ritz, as they say,  but was very clean, had good reviews and was in an excellent location! There were no signs of hair dryer or shampoo, but there was an electric tea kettle (very English, love it!). Situated above a pub (in an old building with high ceilings), it felt quaint and “foreign”, in a good way . My room was a single, with one small bed, one worn chair and one tiny table. It had a small bathroom and also a tall and very old glass window/door leading out to the narrow balcony, which overlooked a busy street. Since I often sleep with earplugs when I travel, the street noise didn’t bother me, but only added to the charm! 🙂

As tired as I was after the (ten and a half hour) flight and as ready as I was to shower and sleep, I needed to stretch my legs and went for a little walk.

Just a block away I took this picture of Sydney Town Hall, beautifully lit up for the holidays:

Next door there was the gorgeous St Andrew’s Cathedral (the oldest cathedral in Australia), a Gothic Revival mid-19th century building. I am proud of my shot below, combining the eternal (trees), the old (church) and the new (skyscraper).

There was also a Woolie’s (that’s what they call Woolworth’s grocery store) nearby, so I got a fresh green smoothie for brekkie (breakfast in Australian).

In the morning my mom and I shopped & had lunch at QVB (Queen Victoria Building), the famed Sydney landmark which was a just a block away from my hotel. Built in late 1890s, these beautiful shopping rows have always reminded me of G.U.M. in Moscow. Here is the photo of QVB entrance I took the night before:

With the large Christmas tree 4 stories high, QVB looked extra cheerful, all decked out for the holidays.

And here are a few other pictures I took. I especially love the one of the stained glass (I’m intrigued by this character, what is it?):

That night we went to see a play at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. We had a delicious dinner at the theatre restaurant, and Ted took this photo of my mom and me:

The play (Speed The Plow) was written by an American playwright (David Mamet) and took place in Hollywood. With three Australian actors doing American accents, I forgot I was in Sydney for a while!

After the play, as we were waiting for the rain to stop, we met Rose Byrne, who was the star of the play. I got to tell her how much I loved her movies (both comedies and dramas) and especially her performance on stage that night. My mom snapped this photo:

The next morning we drove to Shell Harbour, NSW (New South Wales) a beautiful beach community just about an hour South of Sydney, near which my mom lives (won’t tell you her exact neighborhood, she likes her privacy and all) 🙂

During my previous visits, I spent a lot of time in Sydney, and Canberra, and hiked (bushwalked, as they call it in Australia) in the Blue Mountains and in the rain forest, did wine tasting, and went to zoos and petted kangaroos. But this time, I was perfectly content to mostly stay put.

During the next 11 days, the weather was beautiful (mostly 80F/26C) and had just the right amount of humidity to make your skin feel happy. My mom’s house is not far from the ocean so they don’t even have an air conditioner (nor a heating system for winter). I slept with my window open every night and listened to the ocean waves in the distance. It was truly relaxing and simply wonderful.

We walked or biked to the beach every day (twice a day a couple of times!). The water was warm but not as warm as in Hawaii. I was told that Australian East Coast water temps get Hawaii-like around February. I’ll just have to go there then to see for myself, right?! 🙂

Here I am in Killalea Beach/State Park (next door to my mom’s neighborhood):

The path we took to the beach every day:
Near the rocks there is a little “rock jacuzzi”, which fills with ocean water at high tide and warms in the sun. It was sooo much fun!

One of the days Ted and I went on a mini triathlon. We biked, walked, swam (and biked back) to a nearby beach (Mystics Beach).

We rode through a forest:

Then we rode through a nature preserve (every day we saw the baby black swans get bigger and bigger!):

Rode and looked over Killalea State Beach:

Rode overlooking Mysics Beach (and Stack Island) in the distance:

Took a little break midway:
We rode and hiked through the bush to get to the river (fun shortcut!):

And then we swam in the Minnamurra River where it flows into the ocean. I swam in my biking outfit (including my water shoes) and on the ride back my clothes dried in the sun. It felt great!

And here is one more photo (although I don’t have my water shoes on in this one):

During the whole time at my mom’s we went out to eat only twice. My mom is a great cook and I was her sous-chef every day.

The photo below is lamb tenderloin with peas and mint jelly. Yum:

This is steak filet with mushrooms:

And here is baked Barramundi (Asian sea bass, super common fish in Australia):

My mom also makes Pavlova, a very popular (in Australia) meringue and cream dessert:

I am getting so ridiculously hungry looking at these photos. It’s about midnight as I am writing this. argh…

Back to the blog.

We also snorkeled in another beautiful location near Shell Harbour (Bass point/Redsands):

And there were always pelicans, everywhere! I got close to this one:

One afternoon we went to my mom’s University (she’s a Professor of Psychology at Uni of Wollongong), and I spent an hour at the Wollongong Botanic Gardens.
In the rain forest section I saw this guy (the Australian Water Dragon):
And a wild turkey:
And this bird (not sure what it is called):

And there were Japanese gardens:

And more gardens:

Time flew by so fast.

It was already Christmas!

While not particularly religious, we decided to do something special on Christmas day: champagne for breakfast!

And white wine with lunch. My mom barely drinks alcohol, so it was funny for me to see her sip “shampers” for “brekkie”.

We had a great time.

Christmas was really nice. We watched a bit of Royal Christmas special (from London) and then went to the beach.

Spending Christmas on the beach was surreal. Growing up in Russia, end of December was always one of the coldest times of the year. It is usually rather cool even in Los Angeles! But here we were, swimming, walking on the beach, saying “Merry Christmas” to strangers.

It was so nice to spend this time with my mom. As I am getting older, I appreciate time with my family more and more. Not that I ever took it for granted. But living so far away from people you love isn’t easy, is it? But even if we lived closer, time with family is precious.

I’m going to leave you with a song that my mom played for me on her iPad. It’s written & performed by the very brilliant Aussie comedian/songwriter, Tim Minchin.

White Wine In The Sun. Please take a listen.

To me, this song will forever be the soundtrack of my first Christmas in Australia.

Thank you for reading my ramblings.

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