Elijah Turns 2 Down Under!

Elijah, our cheeky little boy, has officially entered the “terrible two’s”!  And he is definitely not little anymore!

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Elijah was fortunate to celebrate his 2nd birthday twice.  We had a combined birthday party while holidaying up in South West Rocks with good friends Hamish and Tricia and their daughters Sadie and Caitlyn, as well as my sister Erin and husband John.  Matt’s birthday was on July 6th; Elijah’s on the 13th, and Tricia’s birthday was the 14th.  So our last night all together at the holiday house turned into one big celebration for all three birthday celebrants, complete with chocolate cake, and presents and Tim Tams!

The night we returned home to Blackheath from the holiday house with Erin and John, was Elijah’s actual birth date, so we celebrated (again) and the celebration turned into one of our classic dance parties!  This time with Auntie Erin and Uncle Johnny Boy grinding to the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack, and a lip-sync courtesy of Auntie Erin to the “Kellerman’s Anthem”!

The next day Elijah enjoyed opening some special gifts that had been sent from family back home in Canada.

Elijah continues to delight us with his made up songs and stories and doesn’t miss a beat!  Speaking of beat, he is a budding musician and loves to try his hand at any instrument, guitars especially!

He may have entered the “terrible two’s”, and may test his parents on a regular basis with his stubbornness, but he is still one sweet and fun-loving boy to have around!

Happy 2nd Birthday Elijah!

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Waves and Sunsets and Smiles

It will be a long time before I forget the delight and emotion that was displayed by my sister Erin earlier this year, when she asked Leina and Cohen and Elijah via Skype if it would be alright if she and Uncle Johnny Boy came to visit us in Australia in July!  She followed the request up with “I don’t know why I’m crying!”  But we all knew exactly why she was crying!  It was Erin!  She pretty much cries at everything!  Well it was a combination of that, and the fact that she was going to be leaving behind her two small children, Jillian and Graham, in order to come and see us!

July 8th couldn’t come soon enough!  I had waited patiently to wrap my arms around my only sister for 6 months, and finally it was going to happen!

The afternoon they were arriving in Sydney, we were situated at the holiday house up in South West Rocks, waiting anxiously for their safe arrival!  The video recording of their arrival into the holiday house is priceless!

Immediately upon their arrival after a 7 hour drive up the coast from Sydney, we headed to the beach to greet the rest of the troops!  Long-awaited hugs and kisses were exchanged and a few “Holy Sh@#!  We’re in Australia!” before consuming a well-deserved pint on the beach!

After an exhausting 21 hours in flights, and 7 hours in the car, it wasn’t surprising the eyelids were closing quickly after dinner was served, which was a good thing, since a full day trip to Port Macquarie had been planned for their second day in the land down under.  There would be no rest for the weary!

Port Macquarie was only an hour drive down the coast, and a whale-watching trip had been planned for noon.  The humpback whales were en route to warmer temperatures and Port Macquarie was suggested as the perfect spot to view their migration.  And we were certainly not disappointed.  For those who have never spent time with these magnificent mammals, please heed my advice and GO!  It is one trip I will never forget!  Two humpback whales decided to spend a solid hour around our boat, surprising us with where they would appear next.  All of us were poised and ready with our cameras and video recorders!  The kids were completely fascinated and the sight of these majestic creatures was so impressive.  We had the boat to ourselves and our captain kept the music playing as the whales swam playfully around us.  After two hours, and when it became clear that our two whales were attracted to something further out, we headed back towards shore only to be personally guided into the harbour by a very playful dolphin who we nicknamed “Winter” after the movie “Dolphin Tale”!  It was such a memorable conclusion to the experience.

That afternoon, the bulk of the group toured the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital where between 200 and 300 koalas are admitted each year after being hit by cars, or attacked by animals (dogs mostly), or found and rescued in areas devastated by forest fires or in new residential developments.  We caught up with the free guided tour in the outdoor enclosures of the facility and met some special koalas who were in the process of being rehabilitated in order to be released back into the wild.  We were able to witness some koalas being treated for various injuries and diseases (some for the third or fourth time – naughty koalas!) and thoroughly enjoyed the brief tour.  The kids were really affected by our visit to this unique facility and will often still “play” koala hospital, or ask about it.  Leina has talked extensively about returning to Australia when she is older and working at the Koala Hospital!

One of our most memorable days spent with Erin and John up at South West Rocks, was the day we climbed to the lookout at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse and spotted whales migrating north, and then walked the Jack Perkins track down to the North Smoky Cape Beach (clothing optional beach, I might add!), and spent a good amount of time running in the waves and sand (with clothes on, I might add!), and snapped many photos!

That afternoon, which also happened to be the warmest day of our holiday together, we brought snacks over to the Trial Bay beach and had a blast with the kids!  It had been a long time since I had witnessed my little sister giggling like a young school-girl, as she and Leina tackled body surfing in the waves!  Who had more fun – Leina or Erin – is still up for debate!  They both had huge grins for most of the afternoon and the memories will live on longer than the rashes they developed from slamming into the ocean’s sandy floor over and over again!

Our drive back down the coast towards the Blue Mountains was broken up with a stop at Manning Point for one night at a holiday spot graciously provided to us by Damien’s brother James.  The weather unfortunately did not cooperate – it poured buckets of rain on us – but we were thankful for a cozy place for all of us to sleep, as well as some Aussie red wine and a deck of cards!

Our experiences together in the Blue Mountains saw us celebrating Elijah’s 2nd birthday together (even though Erin bought ‘Happy 1st Birthday’ balloons!), as well as checking out some favourite lookouts like Govetts Leap in Blackheath, the Three Sisters in Katoomba, and Hargraeves over the Megalong Valley.  We did a brief hike and admired the views at Wentworth Falls.  Leina still talks about 2 things from this hike.  1 – that Auntie Erin was really freaked out by the heights, and 2 – that the way Auntie Erin was going to memorize the name of the lookout was by saying “We WENT, and it was WORTH it!”

But the lookout that really freaked Auntie Erin and Uncle John out had to be Pulpit Rock, just down the road from us here in Blackheath.  The photos don’t do this lookout justice.  But suffice it to say, this lookout can make even the strongest of stomachs, weak beyond belief!  The view is unsurpassed.  Four levels of lookouts provide different aspects of the views into the Grose Valley and Blue Gum forest below.  Personally, we think this lookout is much more impressive than the one at the Three Sisters, but thankfully it is a rare and unexploited lookout, which makes it all the more special.

We took Erin and John into Sydney on the train for a day and had a grand time exploring the city we have fallen in love with.  We took them on a ferry ride over to Manly Beach past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of takeaway fish and chips while people watching on the boardwalk overlooking the beach.  We browsed the Rocks Market and then were entertained by an oompah band at the German restaurant ‘Lowenbrau’.  Who knew that Fabio is now making a living as an accordion player at the Lowenbrau in the Rocks in Sydney!?!  Erin and John were impressed with the city and were fortunate enough to spend a couple more days there while staying with my friend Merril, before they had to head back home to Canada.

Before their last few nights in Sydney, Erin and John had the opportunity to check out Blackheath Public School, and to meet Leina and Cohen’s teachers and friends.  They visited their classrooms and admired their hard work and were impressed with the ease and comfort that the kids displayed at the school they have become very attached to.

While Erin and John were here in the land down under, we made sure to expose them to some distinct “flavors”, like kangaroo meat and Tim Tams, and made sure to impress Johnny Boy with a bonfire of eucalyptus leaves, appropriately nicknamed “the eucalypt bomb”!

What impressed us the most during the duration of their visit was the quality of the visit.  Erin and John got to truly be aunt and uncle to their niece and nephews for two whole weeks.  It was a rare and beautiful thing to see them interact without having to worry about the demands of their own children.  The memories made during this quality visit will last many years and their relationships are richer for it.  It was fantastic to see them playing Uno together in the evenings, or reading stories together, or helping them with homework or listening to them read.  Or everyone’s favourite – the “Top 3 Highlights of Your Day”.  I hope to remember witnessing these special bonding moments forever.

The goodbyes at the end of the visit were very tough.  We knew it would be months before we would get to hug Erin and John again, which always makes farewells difficult, but we were just so thankful that they made it!  That they were able to leave their two precious children in the capable hands of the grandparents, and make the long journey to see us.  We will all have visions of waves, and sunsets, and smiles to last a lifetime.  And for that we are so incredibly grateful.

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Memories Made with the Macdonells

We were amazed and touched to think that a family from Glengarry with two small children would want to spend thousands of dollars on flights, and travel thousands of kilometers to the other side of the world, to come see Australia and visit us.

There had been talk of the Macdonell family making the trip to Australia long before we left for this exchange and when it was at last confirmed that tickets had been purchased, we waited anxiously for July 1st and the arrival of Hamish and Tricia and their daughters Sadie and Caitlyn, in the land down under!  They were about to experience the awesomeness that is Australia, and we were about to make some fantastic memories together!

First stop upon arrival, and after 3 hours at the airport organizing the rental car, was Featherdale Wildlife Park!  What better way to welcome our Canadian visitors than with an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of Australia’s iconic furry and feathered friends!  That first evening, which was Canada Day back home, it snowed in Blackheath!  Tricia started to rethink the whole visiting Australia in winter!  They had just left 32 degree weather back home!

The next few days would see us enjoying a tour of the Lucas Cave at one of Australia’s most highly awarded tourist destinations – Jenolan Caves.  And although it is not always easy to remain patient when touring the underground with two 2 year olds – we all managed to enjoy the experience immensely!

Together we explored Katoomba and the Three Sisters, as well as Govetts Leap in our own backyard.  The plan was to give them a good taste of the Blue Mountains before heading up the coast to South West Rocks, where we had a holiday house booked for a week of sun and fun.  The few days in the mountains flew by and before we knew it, we were heading out of Blackheath.

The Hunter Valley, 2 hours north of Sydney and one of Australia’s oldest and best-known wine regions, seemed like the perfect spot to stop for an overnight en route up the coast, and a must-see on Tricia’s list of things to do in the land down under.  The information center in Lovedale in the heart of the Hunter, recommended a couple of wineries given that we only had half a day to spend touring around, and we had 5 children in an otherwise “adult playground”!  We headed for Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard, primarily for the view.  A 360 degree view of the valley was promised, and it did not disappoint.  This 140 year old vineyard is perched in the foothills of the Brokenback Mountain Range and it was breathtaking!  Tricia and I headed inside for a quick taste, and although the wine tasted mighty fine, the service was definitely lacking, so we made our way to the next winery on the list which was McWilliams, Mount Pleasant.

The view may not have been as impressive at McWilliams, but the service and wine were spot on!  Tricia and I enjoyed MANY glasses of wine with our new friend Brian, who by the time we left, had a list of 30 things for us to do while in South West Rocks, as he was a regular vacationer in the Rocks and coincidentally owned a holiday house there!  It was a memorable afternoon….well for Tricia and I anyway!  The boys needed a bar, and fast!

We checked into our three bedroom villa at the Crowne Plaza in the Hunter Valley, and had the boys watered, the kids fed and pj’s on, by the time our babysitter Bev, from the Red Zebra Babysitting Agency, arrived just before 7PM.

It was a magical adult-only night out in the Hunter Valley!  A selling feature for the choice in restaurant was the free shuttle to and from the hotel.  Our personable shuttle driver, Doug, picked us up at the door, and brought us to Blaxlands Inn for dinner.  It would best be described as a small, intimate, country-style restaurant in the Hunter, and we all thoroughly enjoyed our meals, the service, the refreshments, but most of all, the company!  Doug got us all safely home again after some aperitifs at the bar, and we arrived to find all of our darlings fast asleep thanks to Bev!  It was a memorable evening in a very beautiful part of Australia.

We drove away from the Hunter the next morning with the words “so much wine, so little time” ringing in our ears, but never mind, there was a stunning drive up the coast, and a holiday house calling our names!

South West Rocks is on the coast about 6 hours north of Sydney.  The area is blessed with golden beaches and rocky headlands and provides ample opportunity for swimming, surfing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating.  The downtown park at Horseshoe Bay is shaded by towering pine trees, and has a wonderful play structure for the kids!  The holiday house we had booked was going to suit us just fine.  It had 5 bedrooms and a very open concept kitchen, dining and living area on both floors with ample seating, and patio decks on both levels.  It was a good half hour walk from town, but only about a 10 minute walk from the nearest beach access, and within driving distance of some pretty neat day trip attractions.

In South West Rocks we enjoyed spending time with the kangaroos at Little Bay, and admired the view from Smokey Cape Lighthouse, and even though the weather was not super warm, the kids still managed to body surf at most of the beaches in the area.

‘Timbertown’ in nearby Wauchope was hosting their annual Steam Festival, so one of our daytrips included time spent wandering the footpaths of this heritage theme park, similar to Upper Canada Village back home.  It is set up as an entire village complete with stores, and a school, working farm with bullocks, sawmill, bakery, and it tries hard to demonstrate the way of life of Australian pioneers.  The kids had a blast riding the mini train, and going on a Clydesdale wagon ride, but the highlight had to have been the ride around the park on the big ole’ steam train!

Just inland from South West Rocks is very lush countryside and the famous ‘Waterfall Way’.  We left the sand on the coast and meandered through the Bellinger Valley and into the deep and impressive Gondwana rainforest.  The scenery changed from rolling farmland to switchback ridges, to plunging rainforested valleys.  We spent some time at the Dorrigo Rainforest Center in Dorrigo National Park, and walked the ‘Skywalk Boardwalk’ to get an amazing view of the rainforest from above.  Our walk down into the rainforest had the kids swinging from massive vines just like Tarzan and Jane!  Our lunch stop that day was in Belligren which is a quaint town full of charm.  We were excited to return to the holiday house after this daytrip, because this was the day that my sister Erin and brother-in-law John were arriving from Canada!  They had just flown in and were making their way up the coast to meet us at the holiday house that very afternoon!

Our next three days all together were highlighted with trips to Port Macquarie for a whale watching trip, and a visit to the Koala Hospital.  But I will save those details for the next blog post.

Our last couple of nights in South West Rocks with Hamish and Tricia were spent consuming delicious meals, including fresh fish that Hamish and John had caught on an early morning deep sea fishing trip, and playing cards, catching up, laughing until our cheeks hurt, and celebrating 3 birthdays – Matt’s on the 6th, Elijah’s on the 13th, and Tricia’s on the 14th!  Hamish and Tricia headed off further north of South West Rocks for an opportunity to get to warmer weather and to explore the Great Barrier Reef.  After they returned from their adventure up the coast, Matt and I and the kids met up with them in Sydney and we all had one last day and night with them before they flew home to Canada.

We spent the day traveling by ferry over to Manly on one of the rockiest/waviest boat rides that we had ever been on!  We spent some time on the beach, and then wandered the markets and streets of the downtown before we left the boys at the “Oldest Pub in Sydney”, and then we all caught dinner and drinks at the Australian Hotel in the Rocks.

So, here was this family about to make the long journey back home to Canada, with a suitcase full of souvenirs and heads and hearts full of memories!  We were so thankful and appreciated the effort, time, money, and planning that went into making the trip to the land down under possible and we are grateful for the time spent together and the memories made.  Good friends, like a fine Australian wine, are delightful and just get better with age!

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