The month of December is far behind us now, but our fond memories of celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Sydney are well deserving of this holiday-themed blog post. The best decision we made for this season of merry making was to recruit and welcome six members of the extended Demers family to join us down under from December 17 – January 4. Jeff’s parents, Ron and Diane (Meme and Pepe), and his Aunt Joanne flew in from New Hampshire. Joanne’s daughter, Tracy, who feels more like a sister than a cousin to Jeff, came over from Denver with her 10-year old daughters Halle and Taylor. I think there was enough joy and celebration in our reunion alone to last the season and beyond. For us, Christmas has always been about time with family, and being so far from home could have been a recipe for disaster. Our group of eleven ended up being a recipe for success, an infusion of love and merriment and happy reminders of home.
For the first ten days of our time together we rented a big house in a northern suburb of Sydney called North Curl Curl. This is a family-oriented beach town with easy access to the bustling surf town of Manly and the ferry boat ride into the city of Sydney itself. Although we initially envisioned Sydney-based sight seeing and adventures for our group, it only took one hot, crowded journey into the heart of pre-Christmas Sydney Harbour to realize that spending our days at the pool and beach of our laid back surfer town was a better idea for the first part of the trip. We would save the city-based activities for the week after Christmas, when we moved closer to downtown Sydney.
Highlights of our time in the suburbs include many hours in the pool and spa (Australian term for jacuzzi) at our house, many hours at the beach, learning how to manage the big waves and watching the Aussies of all ages surf, daily walks and visits to the local towns of Dee Why and Manly for Christmas shopping and groceries, visiting the dog park across the street to make some furry friends, and getting to know the children of our rental’s owners who lived right below us. We played a lot of cards, baked and decorated Christmas goodies, talked for hours about our respective fall seasons, and generally soaked up the adult and child company in our midst.
ZOE: One of my favorite memories of our time in North Curl Curl was definitely making Christmas cookies and dog biscuits for everyone down and the beach and dog park. I was Halle’s buddy in making the dog biscuits, because she is obsessed with dogs (especially German Shepherds), and Schuyler and Taylor were the human cookie bakers. After the cookies were baked, Mom set up a cookie decorating station and we used green and red icing and lots of sprinkles to make them festive (the human cookies, that is). Then we made little cards saying Merry Christmas and a big sign saying FREE COOKIES and FREE DOG BISCUITS and we took everything to the beach/dog park. It was so fun handing it all out, seeing the looks on everyone’s faces when they got our holiday treats – joyful and excited! It was a new and different way to spread holiday cheer.
Celebrating Christmas in Australia was a refreshingly different experience for us Northeastern-ers. The weirdest part of the entire affair was to be in 80 degree weather. We went surfing on Christmas Eve, swimming on Christmas day despite some rain, and there wasn’t a Douglas Fir tree in sight. Forget about snowflakes and Frosty decorations in the store windows, and there were no Salvation Army bell ringers on the street corners – just surfers drinking cappuccinos after catching their morning sets. We were hard pressed to even find the colors red and green together in the same place!
BLAIR: I found that being somewhere with such a laid back approach to the holidays was incredibly relaxing. The American frenzy of shopping and spending, planning and prepping that begins sometime after Halloween and haunts us until the very last hours of December 24th just doesn’t exist in the same way in Australia. I saw more clearly the commercialization and hype that infiltrates our lives at home. I hope that we can implement our renewed focus on what really matters during the holiday season when we celebrate Christmas 2014 at home.
SCHUYLER: Christmas Eve day was unusual, mostly because we spent it surfing! Now that’s a first – to be at the beach and taking a surf lesson in HUGE waves just before celebrating the most winterish holiday we know.
We did our best to decorate at home, hanging home-made Merry Christmas signs and snowflakes, and decorating the tree that our hosts kindly put in the house for us. At first, we thought it was just a token tree, and that we would of course go out and buy a “real” tree asap. We soon learned that Christmas trees are not a big business in Australia. People seem to settle for small, plastic trees as tokens of the Christmas festivities. We adjusted accordingly!
Despite being half way around the world, Santa did manage to find us and treat us to some fabulous gifts (in small, packable sizes). Here are a few photos of Christmas day…
BONDI JUNCTION, SYDNEY
After Christmas, we left our amazing digs in the suburbs and headed into Sydney, renting two serviced apartments in a high rise in Bondi Junction. We were all a bit tentative about adjusting to life in the busy city but we were soon to learn that our fears were for naught. Just underneath our apartment building was the train and bus depot and it didn’t take long to figure out the fabulous public transportation system here. We had a huge shopping mall across the street including a supermarket and great food stalls, and across another street was a pedestrian-only walking zone teeming with restaurants and coffee shops, frozen yogurt bars for the kids, and souvenir stores for endless browsing and shopping delights.
For seven days, we explored Sydney by train, bus, and on foot. Highlights include beautiful Darling Harbor (including the Sydney Wildife Encounters and Mme Tussauds, Museums), the Museum of Sydney, Featherdale Wildlife Park, and the Sydney Opera house. Of course, the biggest, brightest, and most thrilling highlight was ringing in the New Year with a BANG, watching the world-renown Sydney Harbor Fireworks from our apartment balcony! What a week!
Venturing about 45 minutes outside the city, we spent a day exploring the Featherdale Wildlife Center, where we got up close and personal with many of Australia’s unique birds, mammals, and marsupials.
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
While our memories of koala petting and kangaroo feeding are some of our fondest thus far, animals weren’t the only Sydney attractions that we had close encounters with. As a Christmas gift to the entire group, Jeff surprised us with tickets to see a live performance at the Sydney Opera House, “Wallace and Gromit’s Musical Marvels!” Wallace and Gromit, for those of you who haven’t yet discovered them, are the hilarious main characters in a British stop-animation (claymation) television series. The Opera House performance was a combination of the cartoon on the big screen with the Sydney International Orchestra playing a live score on stage. It was thrilling for us all to be inside the Opera House and to enjoy such a family-friendly performance!
And last but not least, the incredible sight of New Years Eve over Sydney Harbour! Thanks to our apartment’s balcony view of the harbor, we were thrilled not to have to battle the crowds as a group of eleven with five children among us. Australia really knows how to throw a party though, and it was exciting to be among the first in the world to welcome 2014. The fireworks displays begin at 9:30 (after air shows, concerts, etc.) with a “family fireworks” display over the Harbour that rivals anything we’ve seen in our lives to date. This is just the preliminary round, geared toward families with young children (or tired parents) who can’t make it to midnight. Isn’t that thoughtful? So we took advantage of this and put Thayer to bed with a Happy New Year kiss and she was thrilled to have seen the famous fireworks in the flesh. The midnight rendition was breathtaking on a whole new level, with the explosions lighting up the sky all along the waterfront and at times, streaming off the bridge itself. We were all amazed by the variety of the fireworks, and the length of the display (10 minutes or more). It was truly spectacular! Capturing the celebration on film proved to be another matter, and we were frustrated by the blurry results.
Our three weeks in Sydney flew by in the frenzy of chatter, laughter, late nights and family fun. On January 4th we said goodbye to Joanne, Tracy, Halle and Taylor, who flew back home to face the winter. For Meme, Pepe, and our gang, it was on to Christchurch, New Zealand for 10 days of “campervan”-ing (RV road trip) around the South Island. From Koalas to Kiwis, we were ready to head off on the next leg of our journey. 2014 here we come!