Week 1: Welcome to Travel

I’ve arrived! I mean, as I write this, I’ve been here for over four weeks, but I’m a busy lady, so I’m just getting around to writing about it.

I touched down at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne at 9:30 AM on Friday, November 15, local time. For those paying attention, I left the United States on Wednesday the 13th, so I lost my Thursday in between the sixteen hour flight and the nineteen hour time difference (I’m a day and a half ahead of you reading this at home). I connected at LAX after a two hour flight down the coast, and then was on my way across the Pacific. I know sixteen hours in the air may sound miserable to some of you (specifically my parents), but it really wasn’t that bad. A couple of movies, a few hours of sleep, some more TV. Too easy.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I booked a week-long tour with Welcome to Travel, a company geared towards preparing those new to Australia for their upcoming travels or working holidays. This tour officially began the Monday morning after I arrived, and included my airport pickup and accommodation for my first three nights, so my arrival process was very smooth. I’d already made brunch plans with my friend CT, pictured above, who was on her last day of vacation with her friends, so I dropped my bags at the YHA Metro hostel and walked the three blocks to the Auction Rooms for a delicious meal. The rest of the day was spent wandering around the North Melbourne suburb by myself, trying to stay awake for as long as I could.

Saturday, November 16, was my first full day in Oz. I met up with others from the tour who had also arrived early, and off we went around the city. We wandered down through the CBD (central business district), and down to the Yarra River. We ended up in the National Gallery of Victoria, one of several free museums in the city. Yes, I was just as surprised as you that I wound up in a museum on day 1. We hadn’t been introduced to the trams yet, so we walked all the way back, and ended the night on the rooftop deck with others from the tour.

Now with more from the group, Sunday was again spent exploring the city. We headed towards Carlton Gardens in search of some greenery, but that wasn’t sufficient, so we started towards the Royal Botanic Gardens. Along the way, we stopped at Federation Square, walking through a Polish festival. We crossed the river to the top of the gardens, and with already enough walking, stopped to sit and relax in the sun on a grassy hillside. This was actually one of the highlights of the week, each of us chatting about why we’re here and really getting to know each other. We continued on to the botanic gardens, taking a lap around the lake in the middle, all of us agreeing that we should come back for a picnic or gondola ride. That has yet to happen. Well into the afternoon, and with everyone tired and hungry, we made our way back towards Fed Square to a nighttime noodle market. Delicious food all around, and our first sunburns! We finished the night, again on the rooftop, excited for the tour to officially start.

The whole gang

First thing Monday morning, 22 of us gathered in the lounge on the roof, for our introductions and welcome from our tour leader Clauds, and co-founder Darryl. They talked us through the itinerary for the week, what to expect during and after the tour, and then helped us set up our SIM cards, allowing us to have an Australian phone number (now seems like a good time to mention that if you need to contact me from the US, it’s best to do it via Facebook, What’sApp, or email). At noon, we began our walking tour of the city. Incidentally, I did more walking in my first three days here than in the entire week following. Our first stop was for lunch at Center Place and Degraves Street, little alleyways packed with cafes and restaurants. We walked towards the Old Treasury Building, back through the CBD, and then Chinatown. Along the way, Clauds shared the history of the city, things to note, such as the Free Tram Zone, and shared that Melbourne had the longest ongoing Chinatown outside of Asia. I was ready to fight her on that, but she explained that because of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake that *technically* Melbourne’s was older. The afternoon ended with a trip to the bank to set up our Australian accounts for when we would eventually be working. After a pit stop back at the hostel, we all went for dinner at Hop Haus on the river. Some of us ventured over to Arbory Afloat, a picture perfect bar on the river, and then called it an evening.

Tuesday’s focus was food and drink. We started at the Queen Victoria Markets, three blocks from our hostel, which is like a huge farmers market mixed with tourist trinkets. One could spend hours here, and I’ve made a few trips back in the weeks that followed. From there we all headed back to the botanic gardens for an Aboriginal Heritage Walk, where we learned about the significance of the indigenous culture and history, and how it relates to modern-day Australia. I would definitely recommend this for anyone spending time in Melbourne. We then trammed back to the CBD for gelato and chocolate tasting in Royal and Block Arcades, modeled after London’s indoor shopping areas. We stopped off at the renowned street art alleys, the only areas of the city where street art is permitted and encouraged. To top off a very filling day, dinner was dumplings in Chinatown.

Wednesday we hit the road for an overnight trip to Phillip Island. Mount Martha was our first stop, with the most perfect beaches I’ve ever seen. We got to spend a couple of hours there, then packing back in the bus for lunch of fish and chips with a view. From there we went wine tasting, and enjoyed it so much that we all got wine coolers to go. We crossed the bridge to the island, dropped our bags at the YHA, and then headed to dinner. Before eating, we stopped at Cape Woolamai, best know for where the Hemsworth brothers grew up surfing. Yes, those Hemsworths. After dinner, we were off to the main event, the Penguin Parade! Formerly beachside mansions, the western tip of the island has been turned into a sanctuary for penguins. At dusk, you’re able to watch their migration from the sea back to their underground homes. The most interesting part is watching and listening to their call and response migration as they waddle up and over hills to make sure they get back to their own homes. Cute end to a long day.

Thursday we were up bright and early for surfing! I’ve tried it once in Hawaii when I was 10, and once when I was previously in Australia, and I’m just as bad at it now as I was then! But seriously, I’d love to spend a concentrated amount of time, likely on the east coast, actually practicing the sport, but now’s not the time. We went back to the hostel to shower and change, and then went next door to the Ripcurl surf shop for a brief history of surfing, from Hawaii to Australia, and around the world. From there, we headed back inland to the Maru Wildlife Sanctuary, where we got to feed kangaroos and emus. Lots of animals for me! Getting back on the bus, the temperature said 40° C (104° F), but by the time we were back in the city, it had rained and dropped to 20° C, meaning we got to experience Melbourne’s “four seasons in one day”. We arrived back in North Melbourne in the late afternoon, ordered takeout, and called it a night.

Friday fun started with an all-morning meeting with Sander and Clauds reviewing visa and work details, as well as different travel options. This was a lot of information, but was meant to prepare us for our one-on-one meetings the following day. For lunch, we packed our swimsuits and headed down to St. Kilda, the closest beach to the CBD. I was expecting this to be the same as our experience two days earlier, but it was more of a sub-par beach with touristy chains and shopping. This was a bad introduction, as it was a bit cold, and I’ve enjoyed it more since then, but still, I was expecting more from an Australian beach. After wandering around the area, we headed for a BBQ in the park. This was for all previous Welcome to Travelers as well, so we got to meet some new people. I kicked a soccer ball around til it was too dark, and then we stopped for a beer tower on the way back. Culture and fun in one trip!

Saturday was our time to chat individually with a WTT leader about our future plans for Australia. I got to sleep in, pop to the market, and then talk with the other co-founder, Adam, about what I wanted to do. I had a rough itinerary in my head, and it was more solidified with him. At the moment, I’d like to stay in Melbourne to work for at least the next three months. From there, I want to head to the west coast, likely via guided road trip, to Perth and then up north. Everything is up in the air and I’m being uncharacteristically flexible, but at least I have a general idea to work with. The main event of the day was the night’s bar crawl. We were treated to a free drink at four different bars around the city, starting with a pub and ending with a nightclub. Fun end to a fun week!

Sunday was the final day of the tour, but the only event was an afternoon BBQ. We got to hang out and relax, just what we needed after an exhausting week. Clauds gave us a fond farewell, and then we were left to our own devices. Some of us went for dinner in Little Italy, and most were staying at the YHA for that evening, so it wasn’t really goodbye, but it still felt odd to not have a plan for the next day.

The past week on the tour has surpassed my expectations, and then some. The WTT team set us up for success, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how well I got on with everyone. At the end of my first ten days, I feel that I’ve genuinely made some friends, something I was nervous about prior to arrival. I feel prepared to tackle the next year, and while I know that every week won’t be as amazing as this one was, it has been a pretty incredible start to my time in Australia.