Australia - Christmas 2000
Alan and I met as students over forty years ago, and we have been regular visitors to each other's homes ever since. However, this year's stay with him and his wife Pam was rather special - our first Christmas in the sun. It proved to be a wonderful cocktail of good company, sunshine, food and wine, spiced with a little tourism and a pinch (ouch!) of shopping. I also got to drive Alan's MX5 (I have resisted the temptation to make a smart remark!).
My expectation was that the weather would be hot, probably very hot. We were not disappointed. However, on arrival we were greeted with a massive rain storm which almost stopped the traffic. This quickly changed into a spectacular heatwave which almost stopped me! For three days we survived daytime temperatures up to 39.4°C only courtesy of air conditioning, and encountered the unusual situation (for us) that it was 'too hot to go out'. But by Christmas Eve the weather was delightful: temperatures in the mid to late twenties with a refreshing breeze in the afternoons.
Alan and Pam live in Kiama, a truly beautiful coastal resort about two hours drive south of Sydney. It boasts several beaches to accommodate most tastes, yet without the overt commercialism of the typical British seaside town. There are lots of places to eat, but the food vendors do not encroach on the beaches. Despite Christmas being the height of the holiday season, there were no crowds or queues and plenty of places to park. The Australians we encountered seemed to have mastered the art of having a good time without intruding on others. Perhaps this is due to a population a third the size of Britain living in an area many times bigger. However, I rather think that the wonderful weather is a more likely explanation - it is easier to smile when the sun is shining.
With a sea temperature of 24 degrees C we were tempted into going for an outdoor swim for the first time in years. However, you need to be careful. The sun will burn you very quickly without proper protection, and an inviting swell can turn into a vicious surf in minutes. After enjoying the art of riding the surf I was quickly put in my place by a 'dumper', a breaking wave that literally picks you up and rolls you over and over until it finally 'dumps' you on the beach with every orifice full of sand. Why can the kids always do it so much better than you?
Christmas in high summer yields some fascinating contradictions. Christmas cards and decorations feature traditional snow where it never falls. Santa's sledge is sometimes pulled by kangaroos. Wintery carols seem strange under a burning sun, and Father Christmas definitely has to watch what he wears. No hot toddies or roasted chestnuts, but lots of hot weather variants of traditional fare made with generous helpings of alcohol. We had turkey on Christmas Day, cold with (among many other things) Pam's wonderful coleslaw, followed by Alan's homemade Christmas pudding. Christmas decorations seem to be the prerogative of individuals rather than the town worthies. We saw almost no public decorations, but some of those undertaken on private houses were unbelievable. The best one we encountered, an ordinary private house on an estate, featured over twenty thousand coloured lights, a traditional stable scene, flashing messages and a full scale disco on Christmas Eve attended by several hundred people (including us). The more enthusiastic displays were started in September; heaven only knows the cost and how much electricity they used.
But what Australia really does best is wine. To my modest palate their wines match those from anywhere in the world. After many years of dedicated practical research (drinking!) Elsa and I are beginning to recognise the subtle flavours of individual varieties of grape even when they are blended. The Aussies have been canny enough to import the best vines from all over and use their weather and blending skills to produce some magnificent vintages. And priced in dollars per litre roughly equal to UK prices in pounds per bottle, drinking well in Australia is never going to break the bank.
Family ties seem stronger in Australia, probably because many immigrants had no one else to rely on when they first arrived and the habit has stuck. We enjoyed being part of Alan and Pam's extended family during our stay, which included a three day Christmas celebration and a New Year's party of Bacchanalian proportions. Our thanks to everyone for allowing us to join you.
Finally, a cautionary note for long haul travellers. KLM offered an attractive travel option from our local airport, but it proved to be a double edged sword. They reneged on our pre-booked seat allocations both ways, lost our luggage, served some extraordinary food (pot noodles and ice cream in the middle of the night!), and delayed our return by 24 hours. We shall need some persuading to try them again.