Olympus 40-150mm f2.8

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A Chinese Banquet with the Olympus E-Ms and Pros

A typical Chinese wedding in Singapore typically comprises several segments: the Fetching of the Bride, Tea Ceremonies, a religious segment (e.g. a church wedding), followed finally by the evening banquet. Wedding photographers are routinely contracted to cover an entire day packed with these events, and it can run from as early as 6AM and non-stop all the way till 10PM, and they are also often even asked to find time in-between to put together a montage of photos taken in the morning so that they can be shown during the evening proceedings.

Dad recently had a fairly lavish 80th birthday celebration banquet at Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant @ Carlton Hotel, the same hosting hotel and also restaurant when we had our own wedding banquet 10 years ago. To be fair though, we’ve been several times to Wah Lok over the years, since it’s one of the larger family’s favorite Chinese dining places, and the family knows some of the restaurant’s personnel well enough that we get pretty good service. All of our closest relatives and neighbors were invited to form four tables, and my role was the designate event photographer. Not a role I’m experienced in at all of course, but it was a fun opportunity to try a few new things, and perhaps also get a small degree of insight in to what banquet photographers do and the circumstances they work in.

The equipment outlay was pretty simple: both the E-M1 and E-M5, and both of the Olympus f2.8 pros: 12-40mm and 40-150mm, and the every trusty Nissin i40 for fill-in flash. The ceiling wasn’t very low, so flash bouncing off the ceiling wasn’t going to work well. Unsurprisingly, the Stofen-styled diffuser was throwing so much light around that there most persons’ faces got harshly lit, necessitating adjustments in Photoshop. Shots taken with the i40’s built-in flip card looked much better.

The two E-Ms are similarly configured, and the outputs of both are basically similar. The almost 5 year old E-M5 has started acting up though – it occasionally takes a couple of tries for the unit to power-on properly. Old age? And of the two lenses, the real champ was the 40-150mm. It nailed focus reliably and briskly, and made possible candid shots from halfway across the room. As for shot parameters: pictures were between ISO400 to 800, and for print and blog display purposes, totally usable, and flash sync was set to 1/60s.

A small sample of the pictures from last evening then.

Peter’s oldest cousin, Danyel, is his favorite. ISO640, 40-150mm @ f3.5, 1/60s.

Shot from across the room. (ISO400, 40-150mm f3.5, 1/60s)

Mobile gadgets to keep groups of kids laughing and engaged. (ISO800, 12-40mm @ f4.0, 1/60s)

Looking out at the evening peak hour downtown traffic. (ISO400, 40-15mm @f2.8, 1/60s)

Peter’s cousins were all wanting to photo bomb each other. (ISO800, 12-40mm @ f4.0, 1/60s)

The extended family from both dad and mom’s side. The wait staff basically cleared half the room just so that we could squeeze all 40 of us into this picture! (ISO800, 12-40mm @ f4.0, 1/60s)

If there’s one other consideration the next time I’m asked to do an event like this again, it’d be that I’d seriously have to think about bringing a second flash-gun. Two camera bodies with two f2.8 lenses great! Having to repeatedly switch the flash gun between the two E-Ms – not so much LOL.

Staycation Activities @ Downtown East

We’ve got a rule of thumb, and it is to avoid 3D2N holidays as much as possible, even if it means forking extra to stay for a longer period and having to wreck our brains thinking of how to fill up the itinerary! The only 3D2N stay we’ve ever had at this point was at Capella Sentosa 5 years ago. The short duration was largely on account of cost, but that property still remains by far the best we’ve ever stayed at.

While we received admission tickets to Wild Wild Wet for all four days of our stay at D’Resort, we ended up just using passes for one day – as we accidentally dropped our entire ticket stack somewhere in the water park. We did put in a Lost and Found report at the Information Office and the park crew were nice to follow through it, but finally had no such luck finding them back.

I reckon it was just as well, as it forced us to think harder of what to fill up the rest of the days with. And of that:

Disney’s Moana @ Downtown East Cathay: Peter’s first late night cinema experience for a cartoon that hearkens back to the Disney themes from its films starting 25 years ago. This one was a gamble as we wondered how Peter would handle an 8:50PM screening – and we lucked out. It didn’t take beyond the film’s midpoint before he got grouchy (probably from just being tired) and generally annoying the heck out of Ling.

Didn’t take long before he wriggled out of his Eskimo outfit.

Orchid Bowl @ Downtown East E!Hub: you know you suck at something when your 7 year old daughter hands you your butt:

You know you suck at it when even your 7 year old daughter is handing you your butt.

Then again, this is how she got there:

Ball, meet foot.

Longkang Fishing @ Mainland Tropical Fish Farm: with ‘longkang’ literally meaning ‘drain’ for our Ang Mo bud.:) Our parents’ generation will quip that this was one of their leisure past times before Gen Y and Z’s iPads, video games and smartphones. But Ling and I just a few years ago climbed down into a large drain opposite Hougang Mall to catch fishes to supplement our freshwater aquarium – and we caught several Corydoras even!

The Farm was just a few minutes drive from Downtown East, and we spent an hour there in a small tidily landscaped and man-made drain of about 18 meters long catching critters. There’s a token fee of $4 per child for every 30 minutes, but the very nice and super laid-back auntie there gave our two kids 45 minutes of catching time.

Some bloggers have remarked how difficult it was for kids to catch these critters given how fast they swim. Funnily, we had no such difficulties. We caught 15 with most going between Hannah and Ling. I was taking pictures, but in the space of a minute also caught three too. The fishes do detect movement – I assume from the mid-morning shadows we cast onto the water – and typically scatter free quickly. So, the trick is simply to use the tiny nets provided in the opposing direction and where clusters of fishes are. We were able to scoop 1-2 critters this way a time.

Safe for kids, though Peter didn’t catch anything!

Hannah camping where the drain outlets were, since large groups of fishes were gathering there.

Our catch for the morning.

Peter looking as though he’s prepared to eat the fish – raw.

We returned all we caught back to the farm though, since our home aquarium is already densely populated with tetras and snails. But the kids enjoyed this one – and the activity gets a solid recommendation from us.

Pasir Ris Public Library @ White Sands Shopping Centre: the E!Hub @ Downtown East is a little rundown, while White Sands has just recently undergone refurbishment. Its offering of stores and restaurants remain pretty much standard fare for Singapore shopping malls, but the also recently renovated public library is very nicely done-up. We stayed and left with about a dozen loaned books.

We again feel terrifically fortunate that Hannah prefers reading instead of electronic gadgets.

And Peter just treats every thing as toys to smother his body parts with.

eXplorer Kids @ Downtown East E!Hub: we’d gone by this indoor playground earlier this year. The area was also just recently refurbished, and it looks slightly brighter now, with a few new play areas that we didn’t previously see in our last visit. More importantly is that there’s a current promotion for NTUC Members: each card holder can get free membership for up to two kids. More details here. The offer was good enough for us to drive back home to pick up our kids’ birth certificates for registration.

This was about as high as he could manage, even with assists from Mommy.

Starbucks @ Downtown East: half of the indoor seating in the store were squatted by young adults pretending to study, but we managed to put together two separate tables to chill over brewed coffee, Hazel Nut Lattes, and Signature Hot Chocolate for the kids.

Listening to pieces from the accompanying CD in the Suzuki Method book.

Signature Hot Chocolate – yummy.

His latest thing: stick his tongue out whenever a picture is taken.

After all the trauma you routinely cause mommy, you better invent some world changing technology to benefit all mankind, bud!

There was also a small Tayo & Friends demonstration area beside Starbucks. One of Ling’s ex-students was temping in the area, and he kept our two kids jolly entertained around this children road circuit.

Hannah quips that this was our best vacation ever. Putting aside the bleh stay at D’Resort, it was certainly enjoyable also for us parents. We’re start planning for our mid-year vacation spot for June 2017, so more to come on that soon enough!

Amazonia @ Great World City

Parents of young kids will readily attest to this: every time there’s a school holiday break, we’d have to wreck our brains to fill the break period with things for kids to do. Granted, there are typically enough toys and activities at home already – and we still try not to expose them to mobile gadgets like iPads and the like – but it’s a real challenge if we want to get out of the house to do something outside.

That said, Hannah at home after school yesterday shared excitedly that she was glad that mommy and daddy had a large number of activities for her this time round, and it went something like this:

MON: Universal Studios Singapore

TUES: Badminton @ Minton

WEDS: Outing with maternal grandma

THURS: Hay Dairies and Bollywood Veggies

SAT: Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe @ Seletar Airport

MON: Amazonia @ Great World City

For the last bit; it’s been several years since we last went by Great World City. The mall while reasonably central as it is, is situated at a somewhat less convenient location if you’re not driving since there aren’t any train stations immediately nearby. The mall has also seemed a little more tuned to the affluent crowd with its boutique shops. Still, we’ve been wanting to check out the Amazonia Indoor Playground with the kids, so made an effort over the public holiday earlier this week to finally go by.  And so, brief comments:

The playground opens at 10:00AM. The crowd was fairly thin at the start but by 11:00AM was pretty crowded with families constantly streaming in.

Admission was pricey at $33 per child with an additional $1 for accompanying parent, and $4 for adult socks. The two hours of playtime on a public holiday are adequate given the size of the playground. Socks must be won by all persons, and there are staff patrolling the premise reminding patrons of this.

The main attraction – the four level tall Jungle Play Gym – is the real standout, and most kids went straight for it. While it doesn’t occupy that much floor area, there are lots of inventive small areas cloistered on the insides to space everyone out. The three slides down are pretty helpful in sending people from the top floor right down briskly, and there were plenty of adults going for it even!

The Toddler Play area is for 3 years and younger. Older kids are not permitted, and the staff do remind patrons of this too.

The other areas – Space Ball and 3D Glow Golf – though were inaccessible and closed off.

The parents’ and caregivers seating area was limited, with seats at the Bistro taken up really quickly.

In all,the playground was a little smaller than expected in terms of floor area, but it’s also quite dense with activities. I reckon persons who’re claustrophobic might not want to visit on a busy holiday or weekend and look for a less busy day to go by. The place is also quite well-maintained though I thought generally lighting could be improved. Both Peter and Hannah enjoyed themselves on this outing, though by the time 2 hours were up, both were also ready to leave, with Ling completely worn-out chasing after the two (I was in the sitting area chilling out LOL).

The best part for the adults though was morning breakfast at Great World City’s Starbucks. Uncrowded, comfortable seating, and a slightly wider than normal range of breakfast items than what we’ve seen at other outlets!

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Five plates of pastries and morning brews for the adults.

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When one pair of finger bunny ear for Peter just isn’t enough.

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Mommy getting into the spirit of things too.

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Amazonia – kids loved it!

Universal Studios Singapore

I don’t think there are many Singaporean families who’ve yet to visit Universal Studio Singapore (USS) – our island’s very own theme park – since it’s opening 5 years ago. We’ve largely put it off because the kids, at various points, were too young – and we also have this thing about avoiding crowds where possible!

Still, when my workplace selected the USS as this year’s Family Day outing venue and in the month of September with heavily discounted admission prices, I figured this was about as good a time to visit as any. I reckon there’s enough material online already about the place, so without getting into the park introduction bits, here are our summarized notes on the trip.

On account that Peter can only be energetic for so long in a typical day before he gets grouchy, our trip out to USS was early in the morning and we were right there lining up for entry when the park opened at 10AM. That probably isn’t the best time for most visitors, since you only have a very small window to get to the popular rides before the inevitable long queues form up. Since the park closes at 7PM, it might just be better to get to the park in the early/mid afternoon onwards when the queues start thinning out.

Parking was easy though this early early in the morning with spots aplenty, though the charges were hefty. We paid $16 for an approximately 6 hour parking.

The most popular rides all begin on the right turn after Hollywood zone, and that was pretty much the direction most of the crowd made a beeline for as soon as they were past the gate at 10AM. If you’re crowd adverse and don’t mind missing the rollercoasters, take the left and start with the Madagascar rides.

And some brief comments on the rides and shows we got to.

Madagascar: A Crate Adventure: easy-going river boat ride that takes place inside the hull of the large cargo ship featured in the films. The seats are a little small for large adults though and uncomfortable.

Far Far Away: Shrek 4D Adventure: the preamble in the main holding area was a little too long and to the point where the kids got a little restless, but the 3D stereoscopic show itself was lots of fun – especially with the water, wind and seat vibration effects. The freely provided 3D glasses were flimsy though and not quite capable of providing anything beyond a small degree of visual depth.

Far Far Away: Magic Potion Spin: the children’s Ferris Wheel Situated inside the zone’s gift shop. Pretty long and slow moving queue (albeit inside a comfortably air-con room) since there are just six carriages that can sit at most two each. Nothing particularly exciting but it’s at least a nice place to hide out from humid weather.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure: Peter couldn’t be admitted into this one, so it was just Hannah and Ling – and from the way they described it, it was pretty fun though both got a little drenched!

The Lost World: Waterworld Show: very well-done up show that starts at 1:15PM. The arena-type sitting can sit hundreds, and avoid the soak zone if you don’t want to get drenched from the water splashes from the Jet Skis nor the performers pranking the audience before the main show begins.

The Lost World: Dino-Soarin’: another child-friendly ride, with the pterodactyls-styled cars going about faster than they look from the outside. Queues move slowly though as the ride is popular.

Sci-Fi City: Accelerator: whirling twirling ride with cars that can sit a family of four easily. Child friendly though those particularly susceptible to vertigo will want to give it a miss.

New York: Sesame Street Spaghetti Space Chase: another low-intensity and mostly sedate ride for children. Queues cleared pretty quickly.

New York: Sesame Street: When I Grow Up: situated inside the large Pantages Hollywood Theatre, and a reasonably done up live performance show featuring several of the show’s most popular characters. The most fun part though was at the end when bubbles were released from the ceiling and floated down. The two kids had a lot of fun chasing all the bubbles down LOL.

It took us about 5 hours to do one round in the park, and we skipped most of the most popular rides, figuring that we’d likely come back in a few years when Peter and Hannah are older. Pictures below were taken on the E-M1/M5s with 12-40/40-150mm f2.8s. The E-M5/40-150mm performed very well again, capturing the action-centric shots during the Waterworld Show though we were seated well away from the front of the stage.

The audience volunteer getting pranked by the show's performers.

The audience volunteer getting pranked by the show’s performers.

'Smokers' making their appearance on Jet Skis.

‘Smokers’ making their appearance on Jet Skis.

A full-sized PT boat with a live-sized gatling gun that spewed pyrotechnics!

A full-sized PT boat with a live-sized gatling gun that spewed pyrotechnics!

Time to break out the bazooka! The actor performing the role of The Deacon, one of the late Dennis Hopper's defining roles.

Time to break out the bazooka! The actor performing the role of The Deacon, one of the late Dennis Hopper’s defining roles.

Universal Studios Singapore - we'll be back in a few years!

Universal Studios Singapore – we’ll be back in a few years!

 

9 Days in Melbourne – Equipment comments

Whoops. Spoke too soon about the last post on our Melbourne trip being the third and last of the retrospective posts. This one is about things that worked especially well equipment wise, and things that broke and just didn’t work. All for our collective memory so that we don’t do them again.

Before we had kids, we routinely brought along for vacations an entire bag full of camera bodies, filters to do different things, wireless triggers, heavy lenses and even that full-sized Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod/ballhead in the ThinkTank Bazooka case. Things are different now though, since our backpacks now have to hold stuff we need for our kids – diapers, wet wipes, children water bottles, meal bibs, emergency medication, and spare clothing. I brought along far less camera equipment this time round for the Melbourne trip; just the E-M1, the two Olympus Pro f2.8 lenses, Fujifilm X70, and the Panasonic TM700 camcorder. And summarily:

The E-M1 performed superbly again in its second overseas outing.

The 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8 lenses and especially the latter worked well beyond my expectations. The close-ups of Lemurs @ Melbourne Zoo were tack sharp center-wise, and the lens was able to resolve very fine detail – right down to strands of Lemur fur at 100% crops.

I’d ordered from Amazon UK a couple of third party E-M1 batteries (‘MaximalPower‘ brand) and brought them alongside the OEM ones as batteries in cold weather routinely don’t hold their charge as well. But I ended up not having to swap batteries at all. Even though a typical day of activities saw about 400-450 pictures on the E-M1 – and there was still power to spare at the end of each day.

Batteries for the E-M1; the third party replacement (MaximalPower) compared with the OEM from Olympus. The replacement has worked quite well in its first extensive outing.

Batteries for the E-M1; the third party replacement (MaximalPower) compared with the OEM from Olympus. The replacement has worked quite well in its first extensive outing. As to whether they will bloat like the DSTN ones did – time will tell.

The JobyPro camera strap worked great, and the strap length was easily adjustable depending on what I was carrying on my back.

The X70 was mixed. It was convenient as a small camera that fitted into my jacket pocket, responsive in starting up and general usage – but just slow in AF when indoors. The lack of optical stabilization, especially important in low-light shots, was a real clunker, and I obtained far more picture keepers using the E-M1 with the 12-40mm taking wide-angles in low-light than with the X70.

Our old Panasonic TM700 was also carted along  with an extra battery and its dedicated charger in our luggage case, and never got taken out. In its place, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 took pleasing video.. for the most part as there were still that jello effect when panning around and also frequent focusing issues. Still, looks like it’s time to retire the TM700 – it’s served us very well in the last 6 years now.

Ditto also for the little Nissin i40 flash. That got brought along but never left the luggage case.

The iPad Air 2 was great for reading when sitting down on a bed or in a seat at the cafe, but terrifically unwieldy when on the move. When my mobile broadband contact ends in a few months, I’m going to seriously consider getting the iPad Mini 4 when I renew for the contract bundle.

The Google Nexus 7 – which we stored all the children cartoons – were used only on selected evenings when the kids wanted something other than the ABC Kids‘ Channel. But then Peter got extremely restless on the flight home and significantly stressed Mommy out, and he only calmed down after we remembered we had the Nexus 7 in our carry-on luggage, and turned it on for Tom and Jerry cartoons.

The Anker 5-port USB charger I’d ordered from Amazon a year ago was worth its weight in gold. 40W through 8 amps – yummy – and wrapped in scratch-resistant material.

The Anker – and last multi-port USB charger you will ever need.

The Mi 16000mAh Power Bank never got used. The devices it was intended to sustain beyond their typical battery lives – the iPad Air 2, our two smartphones, the Google Nexus 7 – all had enough juice to last for the day’s activities.

The Thule EnRoute Blur 2 Backpack could hold a huge bunch of stuff: two tablets, the Surface Pro 3, the Mi 16000mAh Power Bbank, medicine, lightning and micro USB cables, a small umbrella, a water bottle, the Aztech MWR647 4G Mi-Fi, all our AA/AAA/TM700/E-M1/X70 spare batteries (could not be sent as checked-in luggage at the airport), the E-M1/12-40mm/40-150mm in protective padding, the X70, all our passports, an A4 folder of our key itineraries and map printouts – all still with plenty of space to spare. Shoulder straps were comfortable and helped a lot in distributing the weight. And the backpack could also fit comfortably underneath the airline seat too.

The Aztech MWR647 4G Mi-Fi usage was mixed The Optus Prepaid data SIMs were so affordable that we got enough for all our mobile devices. The Hotel WIFI connections were occasionally unstable, so I tried using one of our spare Optus data SIMs in it, but oddly, connection continued to be flaky. I couldn’t say for certain if the Mi-Fi router was wonky, or 3G/LTE network coverage inside the hotel itself was bad as well.

The shiny new Mi Note 3 – bought specifically for this trip – kissed hard concrete on the very first day of our vacation. It had been left display face-down in Ling’s backpack (made of fairly thin canvas), and the backpack accidentally hit a hard surface. The tempered glass layer shattered, and when removed, the top third of the Mi’s display screen was similarly damaged. The phone is still functional – just dangerous to use as there are tiny bits of glass loose in the screen now. Heart-breaking.:(

Glass met concrete = heart pain.

Glass met concrete = heart pain.

So in summary for our next vacation:

Bring only the two Olympus Pro lenses for the Olympus E-M1.

Rethink on keeping the Fujifilm X70.

One spare battery is enough for the E-M1.

Ditch the filters… unless we’re traveling without kids.

Ditch the Panasonic TM700.

Ditch the Mi 16000mAh Power Bank. Bring along the smaller Mi 5000mAh one – just to be safe, y’know.

Ditch the Nissin i40. Alongside the 4 Eneloop batteries and its charger.

Ditch the Mi-Fi router if data SIM cards are cheap and easily available.

 

Melbourne – Day 9 – Queen Victoria Market, Flagstaff Gardens and Homebound

Our last day of our stay in Melbourne. Pretty much free and easy for the day, and after four days of rain, the weather was decent and sun out for good parts of the morning too. Our activities were planned around key timings: specifically that our hotel checkout had to be before 1100hrs, the SkyBus Hotel Transfer to Southern Cross Station would be at 1500hrs, and the Emirates flight home would be at 1800hrs.

Breakfast was at an early 0800hrs and at Muleta’s Cafe, a little eatery just 4 minutes walk from our hotel, along Queen Street and directly opposite Queen Victoria Market. The cafe has a pretty wide menu with several pages of beverage. Ling was tempted to try their pancakes/waffles, which – according to the cafe’s billboard has been well-received by diners – but we decided to start with just the “Everybody Loves Benny” eggs benedict, and a “Mr. Big” which comprised of the usual hashbrows, scrambled eggs, bacon, grilled mushrooms, and sourdough bread. Which with hindsight was the right decision – because the portions that came were huge. The four of us had a lot of problems finishing the pile of food.

Oh my. All the candies at this shop @ QVM.

Oh my. All the candies at this shop @ QVM.

"Everybody loves Benny".

“Everybody loves Benny”.

"Mr. Big". Enough for two diners - really!

“Mr. Big”. Enough for two diners – really!

Everybody had to work hard to finish the food mountain.

Everybody had to work hard to finish the food mountain.

Breakfast, a return to the hotel to finish packing and a quick check-out done, we returned to QV Market with several hours to burn. There are hundreds of makeshift stalls in the Market selling a variety of apparel, footwear, leather goods, souvenirs, little household items and the like – not counting the fresh produce, condiments and neighboring deli opposite. I reckon that visitors could easily spend 3-4 hours going from stall to stall, and best of luck resisting spending small dollars buying little items! We fought hard the temptation to spend small dollars, but still left with a couple of shoulder bags and several household decoration items.

Just opposite our hotel and along William Street is Flagstaff Gardens, with a decent-sized children’s playground. Ever since our SkyBus Hotel Transfer bus drove past this park, Hannah has been pining for a visit to it – and she finally got her wish on our last day. The kids certainly enjoyed this one, with the swing clearly one of Hannah’s favorite highlights of this vacation.

From QVM - soon to be on our toilet door LOL,

From QVM – soon to be on our toilet door LOL,

Street band @ QVM.

Street band @ QVM.

Flagstaff Gardens

Flagstaff Gardens

When we were all young. H at the swing @ Flagstaff Gardens

When we were all young. H at the swing @ Flagstaff Gardens

And this is what the 9 day vacation was really for: getting happy faces for our kids!

And this is what the 9 day vacation was really for: getting happy faces for our kids!

Our luggage inbound was fairly modest with a normal size 26″ case, and a smaller 22″ case which contained mostly Peter’s diapers. We probably ended up using just 3/4s of the diapers, which posed problems – alongside all the Tim Tams and presents we’d bought, we now had a problem fitting everything back into those two cases. We were pretty tempted to buy an additional 28″ case just to buy all the interesting knick knacks and little household decoration items at QV Market!

We were still feeling royally stuffed from the huge breakfast at Muleta’s, so made do with a light lunch back at Queen’s Kitchen. And we’re off back to the airport in 30 minutes. Next post back home in Singapore and some retrospection of our trip.:)

Melbourne – Day 8 – Exploration and Such

Day 8 in Melbourne saw more round the clock rain throughout, with low mist layers occasionally blanketing the city up till the late morning. We still had a few more items left in the relatively busy itinerary – including going up the Eureka 88 Tower, Fitroy Gardens, Parliament House, and Royal Exhibition Building – but decided to drop them all off because of inclement weather. We are though, again, situated in a pretty nice location in the city center, so after breakfast at the little Queens Kitchen cafe beside Pegasus Apart’Hotel and that the rain had slowed to a small drizzle, we walked out again to the central area – Target @ Bourke Street, Woolsworth QV @ Lonsdale Street, and a lunch stopover at Romano’s inside QV – to pick up presents and other things to bring home.

Largely also because our lunch times on the non-tour days have been quite late – typically between 1400 to 1500hrs – and that it’s often very late afternoon by the time we’re back in our hotel, we’ve been also buying packed dinners to microwave. Oh yes – our room has a microwave oven, a fairly large fridge, and a bread toaster situated in a small kitchen. We’ve not gone to the point of actually cooking meals here from fresh produce yet, but hot food off the microwave in cold winter was a reasonable and convenient alternative.

Facing Queen Victoria Market - cold Melbourne morning... at 1115 hrs!

Facing Queen Victoria Market – cold Melbourne morning… at 1115 hrs!

A view from our room and using the 40-150mm. According to Google Maps, this should be the St Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church.

A view from our room and using the 40-150mm. According to Google Maps, this should be the St Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church.

Low-level mist covering the top floors of skyscrapers.

Low-level mist covering the top floors of skyscrapers.

Chinatown, along little Bourke Street.

Chinatown, along little Bourke Street.

About Swanston Street

About Swanston Street

More photos along Swanston Street

More photos along Swanston Street

And still the same street. One of our day tour guides mused that the recent autumns have been one of the warmest, and that's confused the maple trees, so many are still retaining their last bit of colors despite it being mid-winter now.

And still the same street. One of our day tour guides mused that the recent autumns have been one of the warmest, and that’s confused the maple trees, so many are still retaining their last bit of colors despite it being mid-winter now.

Smoked salmon with eggs on a bagel @ Romano's. Yummy!

Smoked salmon with eggs on a bagel @ Romano’s. Yummy!

And this is one of the key reasons why we're vacationing in Australia - stocking up on Tim Tams! Woolsworth had a half-price discount, selling each carton for AUD1.80. That's about a third of the price one pays for in Singapore.

And this is one of the key reasons why we’re vacationing in Australia – stocking up on Tim Tams! Woolsworth had a half-price discount, selling each carton for AUD1.80. That’s about a third of the price one pays for in Singapore.

Dinner for Day 8, and from Woolsworth. Not exactly cheap though, with each tub costing about AUD7 (except the Basmati rice tub).

Dinner for Day 8, and from Woolsworth. Not exactly cheap though, with each tub costing about AUD7 (except the Basmati rice tub).

A view of Queen Victoria Market at 1730 hrs.

A view of Queen Victoria Market at 1730 hrs.

 

Melbourne – Day 7 – Healesville Sanctuary

Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery was just a couple of minutes drive from the Fergussion Winery & Restaurant, and we stopped here for a short 25 minutes before continuing on.  As is fashionable in many Chocolateries these days, the establishment goes with open-concept – large glass windows allow visitors to get a close look at how the various chocolate types are made. Most of the building is used by the retail shop that sells a large variety of chocolate food items and other memorabilia, and the opposing end a busy cafe. There are also large bowls of free dark, white and normal chocolates for visitors to sample at the entrance.

The nicest thing about the Chcolaterie though is the large lawn that’s at the front of it, permitting visitors an obstructed view of many kilometers of farmland, groves, wineries, roads to the distant hills beyond.

The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery.

The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery.

Large glass window into the chocolate kitchen.

Large glass window into the chocolate kitchen.

Chocolate fans will be delighted at the shop.

Chocolate fans will be delighted at the shop.

In the spirit of Euro 2016 happening right this week.

In the spirit of Euro 2016 happening right this week.

Healesville Sanctuary is a further 20 minutes drive away, and we got to the place at about 1415hrs, staying for about 2 hours. We both had very mixed feelings of the place – here are my comments about it:

The Sanctuary has an Australian bushland setting and comprises 200 animal varieties, and the compound is fairly large for the relatively small number of animals it homes. That in itself poses immediate problems; basically, for visitors who’re used to zoos with high enclosure densities or things to see – e.g. everywhere you turn, there’s something fascinating that’ll catch the eye – Healesville Sanctuary is nothing like this. Enclosures are not typically beside each other.

I appreciate the bushland theme as well, but a lot of times, I felt that more care to the care of this natural environment for the park was needed. Flora seemed to had been permitted to grow freely, and some of the enclosures looked quite run-down (especially one of the koala ones).

The admission tickets for the park was included as part of our day tour package, but a look at the ticketing information left us a little startled on our way out. It was a hefty AUD31.60 per adult – same as Melbourne Zoo – but there just is far less to see.

The last issue we had with the Sanctuary is that the enclosures were almost all non-interactive. The kangaroos – which Hannah was really looking forward to feeding again – were in a more or less open enclosure, but our guide actually warned us not to go near them. Quite unlike Ballarat Wildlife Park where the ‘Roos roam free, were all very tame and visitors were encouraged to feed and touch them.

As for the good bits: we were in-time for the 1430hrs bird show, and that at least didn’t disappoint, with several large birds swooping very low to fly just over visitors, and each time they circled for another pass, visitors were wowed. The aviary also has a large number of small but colorful native birds to the country, and despite the slowly darkening light, I managed to get a number of pretty decent shots of the birds perched on branches. The park is also supported by a large number of friendly volunteer guides who’d bring visitors around the place and share insights at each enclosure.

In summary; we both consider the Ballarat Wildlife Park visit a far more memorable and personable experience, smaller it was and hosting fewer animal species. If you’ve been to there already and are considering Healesville Sanctuary specifically for kids also , then we think the Sanctuary can be skipped. If you’re interested in birds though and aren’t with easily bored kids, then the place is still about alright after you’ve adjusted expectations.

Melbourne – Day 7 – Dandenong Ranges

For our two kids at least, the day they were most looking forward to ever since we talked about the itinerary was the Puffing Billy Train ride, included in our third and last day tour for Day 7. The historic steam train is run and lovingly maintained by a team of professional staff and also a member society comprised of hundreds, and who dress up and turn the place to look and feel like that of a 19th century steam train setting.

The Train ride sits inside the Dandenong Ranges, a group of four hills that are pretty near Melbourne itself – just 35km away and slightly less than an hour away – unlike the other two tours, you can’t just zip along the free way at 100km/h to get to the destination since you’re really traveling through Melbourne suburbs. Lots of day tours operate out of Melbourne to bring visitors to the Ranges, and after spending a day here with the afternoon at Healesville Sanctuary, our summary is this: the Puffing Billy ride is great, the Ranges are beautiful, wineries a must if you a wine connoisseur, but skip the Sanctuary unless you have kids and haven’t visited any other wildlife park (more on that in the next post).

The Ranges are filled with towering Eucalyptus trees that rise as high as you can see – your neck muscles will get a good workout – and form quite a majestic sight as we traveled through the Dandenong Ranges National Park. Our first stop was the Grants Picnic Ground, a small stop where were there Cockatoos aplenty which you can feed by purchasing bird seed at the nearby souvenir shop. Unlike Hawdon Avenue though, these fellows are quite a bit wilder, larger, no less brave, and can scratch. In fact, the guides specifically advised visitors not to feed the birds out of their hands, instead providing metallic trays and bowls for that. The souvenir shop also sells the usual gifts and memorabilia, which unlike the usual gift shops, were priced quite reasonably.

It was another 10 minutes ride from Grants Picnic Ground to the Belgrave Station, the start point of our ride on the Puffing Billy Train ride. The train tracks actually run for a bit of distance – and will seem even longer as the train coasts along at a leisurely 15-20km/h. Our tour offered what is largely a taster for a 30 minute ride from Belgrave to Menzies Creek Stations, which is about sufficient for you to get a feel of the ride, though the later stops seem a lot more scenic and could be worth the additional expense and self-arrangement.

One of the key highlights for the ride of course is that you can sit on the carriage ledge and let your legs dangle right out. It might sound dangerous, but it’s perfectly safe for adults, and even Hannah could manage – though we had to keep an eye out for her at all times and ensure she didn’t slip off the train. Peter got to try it too with Ling holding onto him from behind, though the open weather was likely too cold for him to enjoy it much!

Lunch was Roast at the Fergussion Winery and Restaurant, a small family-owned and run winery and that didn’t seem as commercialized as some of the other wineries. Lots of signs on the vineyards requesting that visitors do not touch the plants, as diseases and viruses could apparently be passed along – from humans to the plants that is! The rose bushes planted on the edge of the vineyards are apparently specifically to help with that, since viruses will attack those first before the vineyards themselves, and provide at least some heads-up warning for farmers to react.

The cafe and souvenir shop at Grants Picnic Ground.

The cafe and souvenir shop at Grants Picnic Ground.

Breakfast for the Cockatoos.

Breakfast for the Cockatoos.

Arrrrrrhh! All Ling needs is an eye patch!

Arrrrrrhh! All Ling needs is an eye patch!

The music man who kept train riders entertained while waiting for their rides.

The music man who kept train riders entertained while waiting for their rides.

Train tickets for four.

Train tickets for four.

Train leaving!

Train leaving!

Feet out on the train!

Feet out on the train!

Mommy holding onto Peter - otherwise he'd slip off the train ledge!

Mommy holding onto Peter – otherwise he’d slip off the train ledge!

Menzies Creek - the station stop where we got off after the 30 minute ride.

Menzies Creek – the station stop where we got off after the 30 minute ride.

Fergussion Winery and Restaurant

More in the next post: the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery and Healesville Sanctuary.

Melbourne – Day 6 – Melbourne Museum, Gardens and St. Patrick’s Cathedral

According to our planned itinerary, Day 6 was to be our Gardens and Museums day where we’d visit the Melbourne Museum, Royal Exhibition Building, Cook’s Cottage, Carlton, Parliament, Treasury and Fitzory Gardens and finally St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Lots of walking involved. Possibly because of the super long day on the road at the Great Ocean Road trip yesterday, both Ling and the kids were still a little tired today, and the weather was slightly rainy, chilly with an ongoing wind and all round fierce overcast. We dropped several items from the itinerary – sticking with just the Melbourne Museum, Carlton, Parliament and Treasury Gardens, and finishing with St. Patrick’s Cathedral before heading back to the retail district around Melbourne Central.

The Melbourne Museum doesn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty large compound and set in modern architecture – since it’s current location is a pretty new building that opened in 2001 – and comprises several large exhibits. We visited perhaps about 2/3s of the permanent exhibits over 3 hours before the kids got a little tired (Peter had already dozed off in his stroller), and that included the Science and Life Gallery that featured several overhanging large dinosaur skeletons and many other prehistoric findings, Mind and Body Gallery (Ling remarked that this exhibit is a lot better done up and informative compared to Singapore Science Museum), Forest Gallery (this one is too small and rather underwhelming), Evolution Gallery, and finally a special exhibition on World War I as seen from the Australian perspective. The latter was sobering, with lots of letters, photos and artifacts from Australian soldiers who served in the Great War, many of whom perished in the war.

There was another special exhibition on Jurassic World that required a hefty additional admission charge, so we gave that a miss.

The place is also wheelchair and stroller friendly. In fact, possibly because it was both a weekend and also that school exams had just concluded, the place saw long queues at the ticket booth waiting for entry. The ground floor also has several children play areas. Again, a very nice touch in several places we’ve visited in Melbourne.

Admission fee is AUD14 for adults and free for kids. Definitely worth the price of admission, and 3 hrs won’t be enough for one to really visit all the exhibits, let alone the special ones.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral has a Gothic-styled architecture, and it shows that clearly in its dark stone work. Unlike St. Paul’s Cathedral, this one was bereft of photography donations nor a souvenir shop and saw only a small handful of visitors, and we stayed for a short while to be immersed in the ambiance – though when we about to leave, a bus load of what sounded like Singaporean tourists on a package tour entered and serenity ended there and then.

Carlton Gardens leading to the Royal Exhibition Building and the Melbourne Museum.

Carlton Gardens leading to the Royal Exhibition Building and the Melbourne Museum.

The rain had stopped but the ground was still very wet.

The rain had stopped but the ground was still very wet.

A glass mirror pyramid for kids to crawl into.

A glass mirror pyramid for kids to crawl into.

The Science and Life Gallery.

The Science and Life Gallery.

The Royal Exhibition Building.

The Royal Exhibition Building.

St. Patrick's Cathedral as seen from the junction of Macarthur and Albert Streets.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral as seen from the junction of Macarthur and Albert Streets.

Inside St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral.

Entrance to Treasury Gardens from Spring Street.

Entrance to Treasury Gardens from Spring Street.

Very serene Treasury Gardens at about 1400 hrs. The kids were quite tired though so we had to skip Fizroy Gardens just beyond it.

Very serene Treasury Gardens at about 1400 hrs. The kids were quite tired though so we had to skip Fizroy Gardens just beyond it.