Fat penguins, getting licked by a joey and a perfect meal – more glories from Melbourne.

Our visit to Australia was admittedly minimalist. We took a country that is almost 8 million square miles and reduced it to the 550 miles from Sydney to Melbourne. How dare we?

Yes, we saw a few kangaroos on our little road trip, but where were the cuddly koalas? What about the cute little joeys? We needed to add more authentic Australian wildlife to our itinerary. And while we’re at it, why not throw in some waddly little penguins for good measure?

Why do we love penguins so much? Is it the funny walk? The tuxedo? Their excellent performance in Madagascar? I can’t say for sure, but penguins sure are fun.

They’re also very reliable. Every night at sundown, the penguins of Phillip Island, which is about a two hour drive from Melbourne (driven with amazing good humor by our friend David Morley, who, with his wife Trish, made sure that we felt very welcome in Melbourne), put on a performance that is hard to beat. They emerge from the ocean in groups of twenty or so, mill about on the beach for five or ten minutes, and then waddle off to their burrows, which can be quite a distance away. There are around a thousand penguins in the colony there, and on any given night you can expect at least half of them to come ashore, wave by wave, like the Allied landing at Anzio.

Penguin invasion at Phillip Island

Penguin invasion at Phillip Island (taken off a postcard, since you’re not allowed to take pictures :))

At this time of year the penguins are molting – they drop their feathers and grow new ones. Once they drop their old feathers, which provide the waterproofing they need to survive in the water, they have to stay on land for a few weeks until the new ones grow in. As a result, at this time of year penguins stuff themselves so full of fish that they can barely walk. It seems, well, unseemly, to laugh at fat penguins, but it’s hard not to. Some waddle up onto shore and then promptly fall over like bowling pins. Others will take a few steps, stop, and maybe take a quick nap before continuing on their way. Some are so fat that they have to swivel their hips to achieve forward locomotion. Watching this goofy march of the penguins has to rank up there with some of my most memorable moments in wildlife.

I also got to cuddle a joey. On the way to Phillip Island, we stopped at a small wildlife sanctuary – well, kind of a petting zoo –where Janine got to pet a koala and I got to hold a baby kangaroo named William.

Janine with a kuddly koala.

Janine with a kuddly koala.

I am ever so slightly ambivalent about letting animals that should be wild get too close to humans, but I also see the educational value, especially for kids, in this approach. Anyway, little William settled into my arms for a good long snuggle. At one point he even started absent mindedly licking my finger. Now I can say I watched engorged penguins collapse on a beach and I had my finger licked by a little baby kangaroo. Viva Australia!

Little William licking my finger.

Little William licking my finger.

And now on to the gluttony portion of our program.

Before all these zany wildlife encounters, we did our best to seek out one of those gastronomic meccas that seem to dot the city. It was one of those days when the malaise had set in. We were sitting around staring at each other without the will to do much of anything. We didn’t know where to eat or how to get there. This may sound really silly in the internet age, but I’m here to tell you that it happens. Then I summoned something from deep within, hearing the faint whispers of that inspiring inner voice telling me that there’s pork belly just over the horizon with our name on it. Someone is emulsifying or sous vide-ing just for us. There are microgreens picked by monks drizzled with olive oil pressed with stones quarried from Roman ruins and rowed across the sea by Vikings. It was all out there waiting for us. We just had to lift ourselves off the couch and find it.

And find it we did, in the hipster neighborhood of Fitzroy, which once was known for mayhem and prostitution, but which is now where some of the city’s best food is found.

The Mission or Melbourne? Hipster Fitzroy.

The Mission or Melbourne? Hipster Fitzroy.

After cross referencing about three different tram maps, I figured out how to get out there. (By the way, for all its charms, Melbourne’s transit system is deeply inscrutable. It’s unclear where to buy transit cards, they charge you six bucks for the card and then you have to top it up with value, it’s mystifying when you have to tap on and tap off, and the tram maps are really lousy. And a single ride is $3.75. Bleeeccchhhh.) No matter. We arrived at a place called Saint Crispen, which brought to mind that great Henry V soliloquy (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”), and very soon we knew we’d hit the yummy jackpot. We were seated at the counter and we watched the chef work the pass, checking each dish with the precision of a Swiss diamond cutter mixed with the passion of an opera singer to make sure it was just right. This was going to be good.

We started with a salad of perfect local tomatoes and lightly pickled pressed watermelon, accompanied by olives and feta cheese. This was followed by an appetizer of kangaroo tartare and thinly sliced plums, which were almost the same color as the deep red kangaroo loin. Yep, we have now not just eaten kangaroo, we’ve eaten it raw, and it was delicious. We then had crispy chicken with buttermilk foam, served with one of those science project sous vide eggs that oozes its yolk just right, and the whole affair was topped with a bit of crunchy popcorn. I know, sous vide and popcorn, how precious, but it was really, really good. The main event was roasted pork belly with really crispy slightly sticky skin sitting on a little pool of pureed burnt carrot with some orange and miso tossed in for good measure. Each dish was elegant, perfectly seasoned, and beautifully presented, and the meal moved right into one of our top five of the trip.

The next day we were taken on yet another graciously offered field trip. This time we went to a farmer’s market set on the grounds of a former convent in the suburb of Abbotsford.

Comically beautiful carrots at the Abbotsford farmer's market.

Comically beautiful carrots at the Abbotsford farmer’s market.

Our host, Loretta, is the cousin of my friend (and faithful reader) Marty, and, as with the Morleys, I was reminded how wonderful it is to see a place through a local’s eyes. We feel a bit sheepish about taking up people’s valuable time, but at the same time we’ve met so many really lovely people, like Loretta and her friend Frederica, that it assuages our guilt at least a bit.

I do hope we’ll have a chance to return the many favors before too long.

Next: A homecoming, of sorts, to Japan.

Drinking hoppy beer and eating hoppy kangaroo – the joys of Sydney.

When you visit Australia, what’s the one thing you must do? Obviously, you need to eat their national animal, the kangaroo, right?

Australia and New Zealand. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (or jello, as they call it here). Frick and Frack. Shields and Yarnell.

They’re really quite similar, aren’t they? For starters, their flags are practically identical.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

They both say “g’day” and “no worries.” In both countries a double espresso is a “long black” and a cappuccino is a “short white.” Their accents are pretty similar, although Kiwis say “fush and chups,” which is how I tell them apart. From now on, if I can’t tell if someone is Aussie or Kiwi, I may be forced to trick them into saying either “fish” or “chips” or, if I’m lucky, both. My sense is, however, that Kiwis have a bit of a chip (or chup) on their shoulder about their bigger, richer neighbor. While we were in New Zealand, we heard more than a few barbs aimed at the folks next door. Eec/ Dare I say it? New Zealand seems like Canada to Aussie’s America, which is to say that the place is nicer, safer, and cleaner, and all that pisses the Kiwis off just a bit. As far as I can tell, the Aussies don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, notwithstanding the shocking similarities, seeing as how we made it all the way to New Zealand, it made sense to give Australia a chance to show its stuff.

I will say that the bar was sitting a bit high. New Zealand was lovely. We covered almost 1200 miles over the two islands. Here’s the final route:

Our route through the Shire.

Our route through the Shire.

The people were almost comically friendly. Eighteen seconds out of any downtown in New Zealand and we were back in Middle Earth. The whole country is basically one big Shire full of happy hobbits. Top that, Oz!

On the other hand, we’re city people, and as it turns out, our first stop, Sydney, is an excellent city.

We hit the ground running. In December when we were still in Egypt (which feels like lifetimes ago) I bought tickets to the February 13 Paul Simon/Sting concert in Sydney. We landed, dropped our bags at our hotel (after three weeks in an RV we got to sleep in an actual bed again!) and dashed over to the arena for three hours of real, live popular culture. The walk back to the hotel took us through some of the gritty sections of downtown, complete with more than a few clubs of ill repute, drunken revelers, and other non-Kiwi like experiences. Unlike Wellington, New Zealand, which is just a nicer version of Victoria, British Columbia, Sydney has an underbelly.

In addition to all the fine culture, the nice people of Sydney also served us what may be the best meal of the trip so far, if you don’t count Peter Lugar. We went to a place called Monopole, in the Pott’s Point neighborhood. Despite its name, which brings to mind the central feature of a strip club, it delivered a near-perfect meal. We started with a scallop ceviche, served with grilled avocado and corn and topped with a buttermilk avocado cream and a hint of fresh tarragon. Damn, friends, this was a good dish.

Then there was that kangaroo. It seemed kind of rude to come to Australia and eat their most famous animal, but I just couldn’t help myself. They served us a simply smashing kangaroo loin in a red wine reduction with a dandy little raw beet salad. The ‘roo was tender and tasty and I don’t care who knows it. I promise, however, not to eat koala. (For the record, Janine wants me to remind everyone that there are lots of kangaroos in Australia and that eating the national animal is not against the law or anything.)

Sydney is known for its Asian food, and we went all in, searing our innards at a northern Thai place called House. Isan food from northern Thailand is known for being fiery, and let’s just say that the House burned down, despite the copious amounts of India Pale Ale I used to attempt to put out the flames. We also had really good ramen at one of the very many good looking ramen joints in town.

We went on to sample even more culture in Sydney. After touring at least a half dozen theaters in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina, we finally saw a show. At one of the six theatres in the Sydney Opera House, The Sydney Theatre Company (run by Cate Blanchett’s husband) presented a strange but good production of Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer starring one of Australia’s most beloved actresses, Robyn Nevin. The production employed a very weird technique – half the time the actors performed behind a white cyclorama, but the live performance was captured by cameras and projected on the screen. Every so often, the stage would rotate and the audience could see the actors directly. The technique distracted me from the (mostly) great acting, but Janine felt it gave the wordiness of the text some oomph. I’m happy to say that we disagreed unbickeringly. No matter, this was risky theatre done with verve and I give them points for that.

We also saw Tosca at the Opera House, which reminded me why I have come to really like opera. It was a huge production with massive sets, a cast of more than fifty, an enormous and wonderful orchestra, an overwrought love story, and great big, unamplified voices. Opera audiences are almost as fun as the show itself, and Sydney’s didn’t disappoint. There were dowager empress types, old guys with short ties and pants up to their necks, and a goodly assortment of the aged and the aging out for a night on the town.

The Sydney Opera House really is all that. It’s every bit as dramatic from the inside looking out as it is from the outside looking in. As you might imagine, building it was no picnic. Before the opera, we dug deep for the guided tour, in which we learned of the tribulations of its construction. For any of you out there who have remodeled your house, or, heaven forbid, built one from scratch, take heart – this project went ten years and $70 million over budget. The architect quit two thirds of the way in. When they poured the foundation, they didn’t actually know how they were going to build those famous sails. I’m here to tell you that it was worth it. When Washington, D.C. wanted to create a big performing arts showpiece, it settled for the square, boring Kennedy Center. Sydney built this. These are my kind of people.

The Sydney Opera House - worth every penny.

The Sydney Opera House – worth every penny.

There was so much we didn’t see or eat in Sydney, which in addition to being cultural and delicious is also a truly beautiful city. It’s got harbors, hills, some really lovely neighborhoods, and the famous Bondi Beach. What’s not to like? I’m only sorry that we didn’t have more time. We are told that Melbourne, the big city to the south, is more elegant, more hip, and even more delicious. If that’s the case, we may never leave.