Australia - part I
Port Lincoln, South Australia
Imagine yourself in small slow-paced seaside town with a nearly constant ocean breeze, where its normal to hold conversations with complete strangers, lorikeets and galahs fly in each evening to roost in the sugar gum, the sun reddens the horizon at dawn and dusk, and dolphins frolick in the turquoise waters just offshore. That's where I spend the first seven weeks of the year. Although at the end of my stay, that vision of a romanticized idyllic little town began to blur and fray at the edges.
The town I'm talking about is Port Lincoln in South Australia. Found on the Eyre Peninsula, this small town is precisely found smack dab in the middle of nowhere. A short nine hour drive from Adelaide or 20 hours from Perth, this town is more of a rest stop for traveling vacationers. The biggest tourism draw is shark diving, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The reason I ended up in Port Lincoln was for work. I didn't imagine myself staying for such a long time. Since I've experienced pretty much all there is in this town and its outskirts, I felt it could be of some value to put my thoughts down here. I should say that my biases are from the viewpoint of being there for work (not pleasure). The things that kept me sane were Tor being there with me for the first half of my stay and being able to bird. Just a few hours of going birding and seeing something new (or at least unfamiliar) each morning helped keep me going. This was the longest period of time I had been away from home and from Tor, so birding helped me keep my head and recharged my batteries.
Leave your Rs at home, get a tat, and forget your political correctness, you're in Australia now! Aside from the (what many Americans would call) racism, Aussies are generally very nice people. Maybe it's the small town mentality, but we experienced many acts of kindness from people walking on the streets. Several times people stop to ask if we need directions (looking at birds or at a bird guide makes us looked lost) or they just stop to ask what we are looking at, then chat for a little bit. They seem open and friendly, a stark contrast to the Seattle Freeze.
There are many common phrases in Australia - "no worries" is probably one of the most common ones. Sometimes during a transaction with a cashier, I can hear is up to 3 times in the matter of a few minutes. "How you going?" - a common greeting. "Ta" - thanks. "Good on you" - good, thanks. And of course "G'day." I've been called "love" and "lovely."
It's a small town of 15,000 people and surrounded by endless wheat farms and sheep ranches. On the outskirts of town are three small wineries. However most of it's money is from the seafood industry. The big business of abalone and tuna have made many people rich. Sarin is a perfect example of this money. Needing something to do with all his money, I guess he decided to buy up more than half of the town. From his Port Lincoln Hotel to the Port Lincoln tourist park, he bought many business in town. As a consequence, I lined his pockets very well during my stay in this small town.
Port Lincoln Tourist Park
We stayed at the tourist park for the entire duration of our stay. And we got pretty fed up with it. I know business are in it to make money, but this place felt extremely money grubby. It seemed that once they get your money in their hands, all services go out the window - from cleaning the cabins to providing those little bars of soap. It was very disappointing to be treated so poorly despite paying a lot of money for an extended stay. For people passing through the town (which was probably the majority of their customers), the tourist park was fine with a beautiful location and good amenities. Those customers check in and leaving without complaints. However, the managers of the tourist park sadly seemed inept at dealing with people who stay for longer periods. If I ever had to go back I wouldn't stay at the tourist park. If management changed then I would reconsider, but there were nearby vacation homes that were more appealing than having to deal with those managers again.
Having ample time in town, we had tried most places (except the cafes and fast food restaurants). The restaurants have limited meal hours. So if you want to eat lunch at 2PM, you're out of luck, because the kitchens are closed. After 8:30PM and want dinner? It won't happen at the nicer restaurants. Try McDonald's instead. The food at the nicer restaurants was overall pretty good. But the menus are very similar with the standards being snitzchels, oysters, steak, and seafood. If we were lucky, there would be an appealing special of the day for variation. I got hooked on Lemon-lime and Bitters, a tasty refreshing drink that could be replicated in the States, but probably wouldn't be the same.
Owned by Sarin (but of course) this place was about as good as the Tourist Park in terms of service - it sucked. Australia doesn't work on tips like America so the service could be a little slow at times. But of all the restaurants in Port Lincoln, Sarin's seemed to be the worst - the wait staff could be very inattentive and completely disorganized. The food at Sarin's was decent and well-presented, but not really a large step up from the pubs or other nice restaurants in town. The only thing noteworthy at Sarin's were the kingfish rosettes, and those can be bought in the bar without having to suffer through the bad service. The hype around the restaurant and hotel name seemed to be the biggest draw.
The Pier Hotel
A decent pub with good food. I have to say I like how most of these restaurants have alfresco dining. But the downside was the smoking. Having a non-smoking section next to the smoking section was useless. At the Pier, for whatever reason, maybe the prevailing winds, the smoke always drifted into the non-smoking section. This restaurant was the only one to serve kangaroo fillet (that's pronounced fil-LET, not fil-lay). Most of what I've ordered here was pretty good though I can't say any meals were exceptional.
There were signs saying this restaurant has the best seafood. I have to admit their seafood pizzas were pretty damn good. I also appreciated that they had specials of the day. The specials of the day that I enjoyed were a pasta with scallops and a mussel pot cooked in white wine (it was much better than the mussel pot on the menu). Generally everything I've had here was good. Their chai tea was also excellent.
Grand Tasman Hotel
I admit it's not the coziest or cleanest of interiors of all the restaurants. And I also admit I wasn't too impressed by their menu selections. I avoid ordering anything fried here, because it always looked over done. But this was the best restaurant for deviled scallops and lamb shanks. Both very fine meals and the entry size was good enough for a big meal. The bonus to the restaurant was the salad bar and soft serve ice cream that came with the meal.
My favorite restaurant because of the location and the food. I think what put it over the top was when we walked in one day and the menu was different! Sure the majority of it was the same, but any change (after one month) was welcomed. I especially liked their Blue Fin Tuna salad, which was cooked to perfection. The smoke salmon salad and salt and pepper calamari were also delicious. I only had one bad meal there, which was a pasta of the day that was drowning in a pool of olive oil. I literally had to tilt the plate to retrieve my pasta from the depths of the greasy puddle. Other than that I haven't been disappointed in their food. I also had eggs benedict there one morning. That was also very good.
Of all the notable restaurants, this was the one we went to the least. Mainly because of their limited hours. Only open Wednesday through Sundays for lunch, we couldn't always fit it in. Both of the times we went, their food was well presented and very fresh looking. Their menu had also changed between the times we had gone. The restaurant was on their winery just outside of town. And was complete with chooks (chickens) and a lavender field. Their food and surroundings were a great change from the Port Lincoln main drag.
Peacock Garden/Ming Inn/Bento Noodle
So these were three separate restaurants, but I lump them together for a reason... they weren't that good. I know there are Chinese in Australia, but I've learned even in the States - small towns and Asian cuisine just don't mix. All three pump out the same generic, bland, greasy Chinese food with similar ingredients. Something you'd find in Panada Express. Peacock Garden was probably the worse. The same mix of vegetables with your choice of meat in a different greasy sauce of your choosing. Want to make it Thai food? Just add lemongrass and voila! From Chinese food to Thai in one easy stroke. Seriously that was what the Peacock Garden did with it's mixed menu of Chinese and Thai food. Ming Inn did a little better, but didn't achieve anything higher than Panada Express. Bento Noodle was probably the best. Of the 4 dishes we ordered, 2 were notable different and flavorful. The other two dishes were complete misses. If I had to go back to one... that would be a tough decision. I'd still pick of one these restaurants than having to deal with Sarin's service though.
A little takeaway greasy spoon with burgers and all your typical fried fair of chicken and seafood. The burgers in Australia typically were served with beets. A bit odd, but actually good, if you like beets. The McDonald's served the McOZ, which had beets on it. Anyway, the Pantry was good for a quick(ish) fix. It was a one-woman run grill. If it wasn't too busy it was fine. But she still handled herself well between taking orders and fixing the food (Sarin's could learn something from her). The burgers came plain (but still with beets) or with the lot, meaning a fried egg and bacon. I couldn't eat the lot, but the plain was plenty satisfying.
We ate here once, sort of on a lark. We were bored with the other restaurants so we went here. The service was actually the best in town. The waitress took our orders at the table, brought out water and beers, and was generally very attentive even for American standards. It was schnitzel night on the evening we went. We sat on their balcony and enjoyed pretty good view of the water (ignoring the main road below). I wish the food was as good as the service, but not every place is perfect. This restaurant was where you'd eat if you were on a tight budget. You get your money's worth, but not much joy out of eating it.
Even the smallest amount of down time can result in some great experiences around Port Lincoln.
With a motto of "it's the festival!" what more do you need to know? OK, maybe a little more explanation. We had the fortune of being in town when Tunarama was happening. We were even more fortunate that we had some down time at the same time, so we had to join in the festivities of course (hell, what else were we going to do?). The festival amazingly stretched for 4 days, complete with carnival rides, games, fairy floss (cotton candy), dogwood dogs (hot dogs), arts and crafts, a parade, and of course the many competitions. The competitions included watermelon eating, kid Olympics, keg rolling, and of course tuna tossing. The 2 year champion easily won by throwing the 10 kg tuna 23-meters. He then threw an impressive last-hurrah toss of 25 meters. I later heard on the local radio station that he planned to train for next year's competition. With a $1000 prize it's easy to see why. As impressive as the tuna tossing was, the more popular and well attended competition was the hot bod. We somehow missed that one. This festival seemed to be a big event for the town (at least their was quite a bit of hype around it). There were notably a lot more people in the main street area, but still it was pretty paltry compared to a small fair in the Seattle area. It's all relative though. Out in the middle of nowhere any crowd above 20 people seemed like a riot.
Glen-Forest Tourist Park
We also had the luck of having the Endeavour replica sail into town one weekend. Anywhere else I probably wouldn't have a lot of interest in seeing the boat. But with anything new to see in town was a treat. We took the tour of the boat, getting a sense of how the sailors and explorers lived. I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was. For a lot more money people could pay to "cruise" on the boat around Australia. I think the dock side tour was more my style.
I am sort of embarrassed to say I went here three times during my 7 weeks in Port Lincoln. I did enjoy every visit though. Glen-Forest was a petting zoo of sorts... with your typical Australian critters - kangaroos, koala, wombat, sheep, lorikeets, ostrich, emus, etc. Some were more friendly than others. Some of them you can feed seeds (available for $2). They had a pretty good gimmick for the kids. In addition to the petting zoo, there were segaways and a putt-putt course. For the adults there's wine tasting. The Port Lincoln Winery and the petting zoo were started from seafood money. The place seemed to have been started for a hobby or something to spend their wealth on. The kangaroos were probably the most fun to feed. They were very tame (allowing us to pet their joeys in their pouches) and quite charming when it came to them eating out of our hands. My suggestion for this place would be to go during a weekday during the off-season when they aren't as busy. The animals generally were hungrier for your treats and not as freaked out because they haven't been chased by little kids all day. Also feed the ostrich; he's intimidating, but friendly.
Shark cage diving
I can't say I'm a shark person. So perhaps this experience was somewhat wasted on me, that's not to say I didn't enjoy the trip. It's just to say I'm sure a lot more people would be screaming to go diving with sharks. Shark diving in Port Lincoln cost a hefty $500 per person. Probably the price alone was a good indication of where the line would be drawn between a shark nut and (reasonable) person like me. Fortunately for us, we managed to get a discount since there were 8 people in our group. Still I thought it was too much money, but maybe I'm a cheapskate. Anyway, the trip started early morning to motor out to Neptune Island which was located not too far off the southern tip of Lincoln National Park. On the ride out, there were dolphins riding the bow of the boat and I managed get good views of Flesh-footed Shearwaters and Australasian Gannets. The waters were fairly calm and no one got too sick (including me for once). Hauled out on the rocky shores of Neptune Island were many New Zealand fur seals, the perfect shark snack. Of course to please the crowds, chumming was the better way to ensure some Great White action. Within minutes of stopping, the first shark appeared. It was a large male. People on the boat took turns in the cage. When it was my turn, I was more unsettled by the cage than the sharks in the water. I didn't think I am claustrophobic, but maybe it was being in the water with constant rattling of the cage against the boat that made me so unsettled. I tried to push it out of my head and just get over it, which I eventually, sort of, did. Inside the cage underwater, well wasn't that exciting. To me it was like being in an aquarium (except for being wet). Every once and a while a large shark would appear from the depths and swim away within a second. Before I knew it my time in the cage was done. My final thought of diving with the sharks - meh. I will say the better part about the trip was watching the sharks from the deck. We were fortunate enough to see a shark jump completely out of the water. That was impressive and exciting. That moment made the trip for me. After cage diving was done, we headed back to the marina. Everyone was pretty beat, but we had a beautiful sunny day to watch the scenery or take a nap. Though the tour had it moments I wouldn't say it had it's $500 moments. At least not for me.
There were three wineries in Port Lincoln - Boston Bay, Port Lincoln Winery, and Delacollines. I'm not the wine drinker so I can't say much about how good or bad they were. They all have tasting hours. Delacollines has the added benefit of good lunches. And Port Lincoln Winery has the bonus of doubling as a petting zoo (Glen-Forest).
Railroad museum (and other museums)
The railroad museum like all other museums in Port Lincoln have very limited open hours. The railroad museum had a wealth of information and interesting historical items. However, they seemed to lack cohesion with their presentation. It's as if different volunteers over the years have put together many objects of interest but didn't coordinate the overall flow or even bother to put together a display to explain what exactly we were looking at. The good thing was that the museum wasn't busy so getting a personalized tour was possible.
Winter Hill Lookout
This hill provided a good vantage point of Port Lincoln down below - the buildings, Boston Bay, and the grain dock. Really there's not much else to say about it.
I was somewhat surprised that this was private land and that there was a $30 charge per car to enter. Probably it was the cheapskate inside of me that says it's not worth it. At least that was what thought I in retrospect. It was good for visitors who wanted a condensed version of the coastline. There were plenty of interesting features and coastline on this private land. But for those who would rather spend money for public lands (i.e. national parks), it would be better to drive to beaches in Coffin Bay and Lincoln National Parks rather than Whaler's Way.
We actually didn't go here, but my cheapskate side once again must speak. It cost $15 per car to go in here to see koalas. On the road to Lincoln National Park, about 1 or 2 kilometers before the entrance there were several clumps of sugar gum trees. Most every time I had gone by those trees I had seen at least one koala. The larger trees in front of the houses most definitely have a koala in them, but they can be a little harder to spot while driving by. So I say save your money and look at the koalas for free. If you want to pet a koala, go to Glen-Forest, where you'll also get to pet other animals.
continue onto part II