Just as last year was bookended by railway journeys, so travelling in 2015 started and ended with family drives down to Victoria. Indeed this last day of 2015 has been spent driving home from the latest trip.
Sydneysiders look at us strangely when we tell them we are spending some of our summer break in Australia's second largest city, as they all head out for the northern and southern coastlines of New South Wales. But I dislike most of the New South Wales coast, much of Australia's eastern coastline in fact. Overdeveloped and without history, without soul. Many disagree, but that works out better for us as places like Melbourne tend to have cheaper accommodation around the Christmas break.
Normally we drive as far as Albury and stay a night there before continuing on to our final destination. This year we decided to do the entire Sydney to Melbourne drive in one go. It's not so bad if you can leave early, however, there was a complication as we needed to take Kita to his boarding kennel on the day of departure.
His normal kennel up the road was closed for renovation.
By the time we headed away from the vet in Bexley it was already 11 AM.
We made it as far as Goulburn's Big Merino before a lunch at Maccas. Then away through the yellow fields and rolling hills of granite boulders and slowly spinning wind turbines until at last we needed another break, at Holbrook's HMAS Otway, a longitudinally sliced submarine resting in the middle of a park.
Onwards again, I played a couple of episodes of the Star Wars audio drama that I had downloaded to my phone. It's what used to entertain us on long drives when I was a little kid, my father having carefully recorded all but Episode 8 off ABC Classic radio to cassette tapes. We had a mono cassette player which we would power from the car's cigarette lighter, our car radio being capable only of AM stations.
Unfortunately it was not as well received by the other occupants of the car.
But for a brief petrol and toilet stop, we continued on until we arrived at the hotel at about 8.30 PM. Fortunately it was close enough to the Summer Solstice that it was still light outside. Half an hour we emerged from the hotel in search of a late dinner, finding some little Asian places opposite the hotel. As usual for Melbourne, a Malaysian meal at Sambal Kampung. Not that good really, although their Hainanese chicken was on the better side.
I had my first good sleep in weeks that night.
There are so many things to do around Melbourne that it is often hard to pick an activity. We settled on the Enchanted Adventure Garden at Arthur's Seat on the Mornington Peninsula.
As a child our beach holidays seemed to revolve around the Western side of Port Phillip Bay, so the Mornington Peninsula, on the other side, was not so familiar to me. Part of the journey is along the EastLink motorway.
I have to say that Melbournians certainly know how to build attractive motorways. When we departed from Sydney it was along the M5 motorway, walled with ugly grey and greeny-black concrete barriers. The "artworks" consisted of a red topped dirt and weed covered pyramid and a collection of wooden pine poles that could have been mistaken for telegraph poles without wire attachments.
Even the noise barriers are colourful and patterned. Fiona McIntosh has an interesting post about the art installations along the Mornington Peninsula route and comparing them with Sydney.
My favourite sculpture was Callum Morton's Hotel. When I first say it, an isolated rectangular building with the word "Hotel" at the top I thought it was a genuine place of accommodation, although perhaps yet to open or maybe abandoned. A place where tired drivers could pull over and rest for the night.
But no, it was an artwork. Perhaps it embodies my Lonely Hotel.
The day was sunny but not too hot and there were spectacular views of the bay as we wound our way up to Arthurs Seat. Being a public holiday the Enchanted Adventure Garden was already busy, but not unreasonably crowded. Unfortunately, no early sessions were available for Alex to go ziplining and tree surfing, but there are still plenty of other activities to do.
I loved the 3D maze, where we put on 3D glasses and walked through passageways decorated with horror imagery painted in neon colours that appeared to leap out at you. After this and the mirror maze we walked down through the bushland in which hid sculptures and other brain teaser mazes, along with an obstacle course for children.
Alex refused to try the tube slides, so we bypassed them for the garden mazes. The flowers and topiary work was excellent and the mazes, although not particularly scary or tricky, were pretty to walk around.
We were starving when we emerged. Driving back down we found a fish and chips shop that was pretty decent. I had thought of driving onwards to Sorrento to catch the car ferry across to Queenscliff on the other side of the bay. However, the traffic to Sorrento was horrendous and we gave up and turned back.
The foreshore of the bay was lined with caravan parks and camping sites in the scrub. It reminded me of holidays on the Bellarine Peninsula on the opposite side of the bay. It looked far too nice not to enjoy, so we pulled over at Tyron Beach and took a short walk past colourful beach huts to the beach and azure waters.
"Kind of." he replied, "But it's fun!"
We threw a frisbee, built a sandcastle and moat and watched The Spirit of Tasmania and a blocky car carrier sail towards the Port of Melbourne. According to one man on the beach the cargo ship, which looked more like some Imperial starship than a ocean vessel, was one of three carrying Mustang cars from New York. He had a car on order, but it wouldn't arrive until September 2016.
After the very pleasant seaside interlude it was time to head back to the hotel. As it was still light we took a walk to Bourke Street Mall and looked at the Myer Christmas windows, sixty years old, and I relived a few childhood memories in the toy section of the store.
Once more Star Wars toys were popular.
My first cinema movie was The Empire Strikes Back, watched with a friend in a Melbourne cinema that has since been torn down. I've watched all the Star Wars movies but The Phantom Menance in Melbourne, even making special trips down to watch the other prequels in near empty cinemas. So I had to take this opportunity to watch The Force Awakens. But not at the end of the run. Instead I was going to the IMAX cinema next to the Melbourne Museum.
By myself. None of the others wanted to watch it with me.
I certainly wasn't alone this time, with all seats seemingly booked out and a previous session crowd dressed up in costume.
I enjoyed it. Again. Though I'm not convinced by the IMAX cinema, despite its laser technology.
It was almost midnight when I returned to the cinema along almost empty streets. I never felt unsafe as it was too quiet for that.
This was a short trip to Melbourne. The Queen Vic markets opposite us were closed every day but the Tuesday. After an included breakfast in the near empty hotel restaurant where the hot buffet was closed due to the lack of patronage and meals were made to order we walked across to the markets in search of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Sadly there were no Tasmanian cherries, but we did buy some local cherries, peaches, cheese and fresh pasta for the night's dinner. And the famous hot American jam doughnuts from the van. So yum that it was hard not to rejoin the queue for more.
I had wanted to visit Puffing Billy, but most of the runs were fully booked. So we gave Alex the option of the zoo or Scienceworks. He chose the latter.
It's been over twenty years since I visited Scienceworks, located in the industrial suburb of Spotswood. We caught a train there, though we had to swap our expire Myki cards first.
Scienceworks got the thumbs up from Alex, with lots of interactive displays. He scored well on the fitness tests too (but my reflexes are still much faster!). The planetarium and lightning shows were, like Puffing Billy, booked out, but a staff member kindly gave us a personal tour of the Pumping Station at the rear of the centre.
Giant steam engines used to pump Melbourne's sewage to the treatment works in Werribee, where it is still processed today. We used to know when we passed Werribee on the highway by the smell. Pipes were tunnelled under the mud of the bay by hydraulically pushing sharp edged rings and using high air pressure to keep the mud from soaking back in while rings were mounted in place. The iron rings were then clad in concrete to prevent the sewage from rusting away the metal.
Eventually replacing the steam engines were electric pumps far smaller in size. It's interesting to contrast the two.
Available only on a tour is a look down into the smelly sewage that still runs beneath the plant from the room where giant traps were lowered down into the pipes to remove objects that might otherwise clog the pumps. Fiona, who was showing us around, told us that people used to come to the plant to retrieve jewellery and false teeth lost down the pipes. Uggh!
We returned from Scienceworks feeling exhausted and, in the adults' case, a bit ill (colds, not disgust). We had a relaxing night in and I cooked the pasta using the kitchenette in our hotel room. So much for saving meal money - the facility's only use was that night!
After such a late drive down we tried to leave earlier for our return. We had decided to go only as far as Canberra. I had a go at driving at 110 km/h for about an hour before B decided she would take over again.
Tarcutta was selected as the location for our late lunch stop. I hope to avoid the chain restaurants that litter the route and besides which, I like these quiet little towns now bypassed by the highway. The Internet suggested three options for food and we stopped at the first along the way, the Horse and Jockey Hotel, a small red brick art deco pub, in part because there was a caravan selling cherries nearby.
There was only one other table occupied when we entered and that soon entered. The menu was extensive and very reasonably priced. Though the service was country paced, the servings were big and homely. I had the sausages and mash, B a steak and Alex an adult sized kids meal of spaghetti bolognese. We all swore off dinner.
Then we continued on to Canberra, pretending the Barton Highway was a roller coaster, arriving at the hotel at around 4 PM. The Novotel is my favourite hotel that I've stayed at in Canberra, but is usually quite pricey. However, this is the off season for politics and so business hotels tend to be a lot cheaper.
The Novotel is centrally located and quite nicely appointed, but the car park is a nightmare, with cars crammed in everywhere, requiring valets service in many cases. We somehow managed to get a spot.
With the late hour and after the large lunch and long drive nobody felt like doing much. I was sent out on a mission to do something that Chinese tourists are often criticised for; cooking instant noodles in their hotel rooms.
And so we come to this, the last day of the year. Our return to Sydney was only slightly delayed as we sought the gorgeous cakes of Ricardo's patisserie in the Jamison shops, only to find it closed for the holidays. I had tried them earlier in the month and wanted to share them with the others.
Back in Sydney we picked up Kita and returned home to finish off the last of our Christmas ham.
This year has marked twenty years of international travel for me, but has seen us travel more domestically than overseas. A drive to Bendigo and the Australian Open in January, a family trip to Japan in April followed by a personal return there in June to catch trains. The next month saw us go to Tasmania for the school holidays, enjoying food, art and scenery.
The next trip wasn't until October, with an abortive flight to Singapore taking me only as far as Melbourne and another in November involving an XPT train ride back to Sydney. Finally, early in December I had a confidence boosting flight to Canberra aboard the 717.
As 2015 comes to a close I look forward to a busy 2016. In a week and a half we'll be off to Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Later on it's Japan and we have booked our first trip to the USA in September/October.
Safe travels in 2016.