Thursday, August 18, 2016

8D6N Melbourne & Sydney (with ASA Holidays)

Travelling with the mother always means travelling with a tour group.
Mom's preferred way of travelling may not be the best for more adventurous travellers, 
but travelling on tour has its perks (I'd never splurge on 4-star hotels when on my own).

Bright side: I get to see a lot of one country,
then decide where I want to return to spend more time on my own.

This time round, mom wanted to try travelling again with ASA Holidays
(our last time on tour with them was our first time to Korea, back in 2008).
We chose Australia, because... exchange rate was in our favour?

Day 1

The hipster in me really appreciated the fact that we were in coffee country.
Good coffee would keep me going the next 7 days.

Our first stop right after landing in Melbourne: Victoria Market.
Also quite possibly the poorest planned of the entire itinerary.
We got there slightly after 6am, and most of the stalls were not yet in operation.
Officially, Victoria Market starts trading at 6am (fresh produce stalls) and 8am (specialty stores).
However, given the nature of any market, most stall owners only started setting up shop past 7am, 
which was also when we had to leave for the next thing on the itinerary
(visiting/driving past city landmarks).
So we pretty much visited Victoria Market for a scattering of fresh produce stalls. 
Which is great if buying fruits/vegetables in Melbourne ranks high on your to-do list.

I couldn't help but think that the tour guide/company could have planned Victoria Market for later in the day, doing the city drive and monument visiting first.

Some of the places we visited after Victoria Market:
- a drive-through the arts precinct,
- drive-over Princes Bridge,
- quick look at a part of the Yarra River,
- a stop at St Patrick's Cathedral,
- a stop at Parliament House,
- a stop at Shrine of Remembrance,
- drive-through many other city landmarks,
- lunch stop: Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant
(why Singapore group tours love bringing tourists from an Asian country to eat Asian food in non-Asian countries just... amuses me. I know the reasons for the choice, but still).

We were driven back to our suburban hotel (Amora Riverwalk) around 3-4pm,
after the drive around and some photo-stops.
And then had the whole late afternoon, evening and night to ourselves, in the suburbs, 
with pretty much nothing other than a McDonald's and some small convenience stores. 
Because we had so much free time on our hands, our guide suggested that we take the city tram (own expense) into town to explore more of Melbourne city on our own.

Part of me wonders: Could we not have done the city drive-through & landmark photo-stops earlier, visited Victoria Market at a time that would have given us a better experience, then headed back to the hotel at a more... palatable time?

Day 2

A day of Nature on Phillip Island.

Our first stop was a tourist-scamming souvenir shop in the city before the long drive out to Phillip Island. While the tour group shopped themselves crazy buying keychains and souvenirs, I ran across the road to get me some coffee from a corner cafe.
Like I said, good coffee, very important.

The trip to Phillip Island is pretty much standard for most tourists so I won't go into much detail. 
You can find more information on the exact places we stopped at here. On my own, I probably wouldn't place farms, chocolate factories or trick-eye museums high on my to-visit list.
But on tour, these are the places you go. 
Just, to manage expectations.

This was the day's provided dinner, in a cafe located at the Penguin Parade centre
(given the location, how could the meal be authentic? expectations of the much-awaited lobster dinner were immediately managed).
It was probably frozen lobster - the meat was tough and the taste lacking.

Day 3

Free and easy day in Melbourne, with an optional tour (additional expense) on the Great Ocean Road.
ASA Holidays charged AUD160 for this tour, 
with a provided lunch of pizza (a meal that was, unfortunately, also bad).
My advice if you should choose to go on this tour with ASA: If possible, book a local Australian Great Ocean Road tour provider (plenty available online; a general search online showed an average cost of AUD80-100 per adult) for your free and easy day in Melbourne.

We stopped by somewhere to feed some birds.
Again, when you go on tour, expect inauthentic touristy things.

I know it doesn't look like one and I could easily bluff but, we spotted a whale on our drive!
(that black thing in the distance, that's the whale.)

Somewhere far up in the trees is a koala. Trust me.

Nothing too eventful, but the Great Ocean Road is a good tour to go on if you're visiting Melbourne. 
Beautiful sights all the way along the drive.

Day 4

We leave Melbourne and board the domestic flight to Sydney.

First stop after landing: Sydney Fish Market,
for our lunch (own expense).

The lobster here was so, much, better.

After more touristy things (i.e. tickets to Madame Tussauds, Sydney Aquarium, and Sydney Zoo), 
we left Sydney city and started the long drive to Nelson Bay.

This was where things went slightly wrong. Because of poor lighting conditions on the roads (the long drive probably didn't help either), our coach driver took a wrong turn and drove onto a very dark road. When he realised his mistake and tried turning around, one wheel of the coach unfortunately went into a ditch. The coach started inclining to a side and soon, our guide yelled for all of us to get off. We waited for a few minutes for the driver to try and get the coach out of the ditch, but it was clear a tow-truck was needed. We walked back to the main road with our valuables and waited at a nearby McDonald's (thank goodness for globalisation and heating!) for the coach to be towed out of the ditch.

After waiting for about an hour, thus delaying our arrival at the hotel and hence affecting the night's dinner, our coach came by the McDonald's we were hiding out in to pick us up so we could continue on our journey to the hotel. 
Our guide informed us that because the hotel's restaurant (where we were supposed to have our provided local "A$30 2-Course dinner" at 7.30pm that night) would be closed by the time we arrived, he would have our already-made-and-cold dinners packed and delivered to our rooms. 
We arrived at our hotel past 9pm.

This was also where ASA Holiday's poor handling of events was, unfortunately, again evident.
The minor accident was an understandable human error. Accidents happen.
The last time mom and I went on tour to Europe with Chan Brothers, a coach that was 2-3 coaches away from ours had gotten into a major accident. We were stuck on the narrow road down from the mountain, waiting for rescue helicopters to rescue the injured before the coaches could be cleared. 
Our itinerary was delayed. 
Our tour group was safe, our driver and guide had made no mistake. 
But because of the delay to our itinerary, our guide offered us complimentary drinks that night for dinner. I had thought that was a nice gesture. The company was not at fault and could have easily stopped at simple, verbal apologies.

In this case, ASA Holidays had at least some form of responsibility to take. 
A kind gesture of some form would have been nice (I don't even mean monetarily).

We were given repeated verbal apologies, a cold "2-Course Dinner" (I had a packed salad and cold beef steak), and were told to use the microwave oven in our room to heat up the dinners.

P.S. I was also informed after asking the guide while he was handing me my cold steak dinner that the hotel (more an outdated apartment than a hotel; it was a timeshare property that was located far away from everything else and had very few amenities; our guide proudly declared the next morning that "only ASA is using this place so far". Lol) we were staying at that night had no WiFi. 
A quick check revealed that there was WiFi, but I had to pay for it.

Note-to-self: It's the 21st century; 
Never stay at somewhat creepy timeshare apartments that don't provide free WiFi.

Day 5

A day on the sands at Port Stephens.

And then dolphin watching out on the open seas.
This made me very happy.

This day was perhaps the best of the whole 8D6N itinerary. My mom enjoyed it the most, and remarked that she would have liked this holiday a lot more if there were more of such days.

The day's provided lunch was fantastic - barramundi meal on a barramundi farm.
Finally, something closer to authentic.

Dinner was at our own expense that night. 
Our guide decided to switch things around and have the provided dinner swapped to the next day. 
Fine by me, except he dropped us off at Chinatown to have our own dinner. 

So while everyone headed for the Chinese restaurants the guide had recommended, I headed for the nearest food court and had me some Malaysian food (Happy Chef Sydney) that was Yan Can Cook-endorsed. Lol.

Day 6

Last full day of itinerary in Sydney before we headed home the next day.

Some of my tour-mates were real sweethearts. 
They thought I was 21 and while shopping for souvenirs on Blue Mountains, spotted the get-a-free-koala-teddy-with-8-jars-of-honey-bought sign and beckoned me over to choose a koala teddy for myself because they had bought 8 jars of honey among themselves.
Lol. The sweetest.

We ended our tour back in the city, at the Sydney Tower Eye.

The day's lunch was Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant on Blue Mountains.
Dinner was Chinese food at another Chinese restaurant in the city.

Day 7

Free and easy morning in Sydney before heading for the airport.

I spotted an interesting-looking cafe on one of the drives on our coach, 
and dragged mom back on our last morning in Sydney to have breakfast there.

Then we took the train out to make a quick stop at Market City,
where we finally got some time to ourselves to get some decent shopping done.

As for the hotel in Sydney, we spent our 2 nights there in Holiday Inn Potts Point, where there was again no free WiFi (save for the 20-minute/20MB, whichever comes first, complimentary WiFi available in the hotel lobby; Note-to-self: 20MB is used up very very quickly).

And that was our trip with ASA Holidays to Melbourne and Sydney.
For the company's full itinerary (not very detailed though), go here.

I can't say I would recommend this tour. 
Given the meals provided, location (and availability of WiFi) of hotels, and overall activities in the itinerary, this holiday was quite forgettable and not very worth the money.

Or maybe you just shouldn't go on tour to Melbourne/Sydney.
Given that English is their main language, it's really easy to travel these places on your own, 
especially if you spend most of your time exploring the cities.
Consider booking local driving tours/renting a car (same side drive as Singapore!) if you plan to explore places outside of the cities.

Till the next review,


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