Hamilton Island and Great Barrier Reef are bucket list destinations

One of my dreams when I got to Australia was to swim and snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the world. I was ecstatic to do that on a recent trip to Hamilton Island in Queensland, about a two-hour plane flight north of Sydney.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

Hamilton Island is often called one of the most beautiful places to visit in Australia by travel sites, and I totally understand why. Staying on the island, where golf carts dominate the transportation and only about 1,300 people live, is a little slice of heaven. Jungle-like scenery, an abundance of cockatoos and sea birds, turquoise waters, gorgeous yachts at the marina, never-ending beaches and a generally happy atmosphere everywhere you turn makes you never want to leave.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

I stayed at the Reef View Hotel, where indeed, the room had a beautiful view of sparkling waters and pristine sands. The privately owned island has several diverse restaurants, serving pizza and Italian, fish and chips, pub food and more. The Bommie Deck at the Hamilton Island Yacht Club, where Taylor Swift performed last year, is a fun place to get a cocktail because of the stunning marina views.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

I enjoyed the rowdy trivia night at the Marina Tavern, which served great pasta for a pub. The veggie burger and wedges at Popeye’s Fish and Chips were massive and delicious, and I enjoyed the saganaki and pizza at Manta Ray. The Ice Cream Parlour on the island serves tasty sundaes, and TAKO, a Mexican spot, has winners with every dish. Try the haloumi quesadilla, jalapeno poppers, black bean tacos and chips.

Tours are really fun at Hamilton Island when you’re not doing water sports on the beach. The all-day tour to the Great Barrier Reef was a blast. It’s about two hours away from the hotel and serves a delicious tea and buffet lunch on the boat. Once you get to the Reef, grab a wet suit and some snorkeling gear, and dive in. You’ll be surrounded by colourful fish and coral.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

I wasn’t planning on going scuba diving. I’m not certified and have never been. I was interested to hear about the scuba introduction, which you can do even if you don’t know how to swim. An instructor holds your hand the whole time and guides you through. Daring to do it, it was definitely a new sensation to breathe while fully submerged in water. It’s a little odd at first, but once you get going, it’s absolutely amazing. I would tell anyone to face their fears and do it. Being so close to fish, clams and coral is something words can’t do justice.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

The Reefworld tour also included an underwater boating experience which was really fun because it gave a great view of the reef. The pontoon we were on also had an area where you could walk down and see the sea. To get an up-close view of a sea turtle was exciting. The staff on board were so friendly and accommodating. From beginning to end, the tour was a blast.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

I also took a half-day tour to Whitehaven Beach, about a half-hour boat ride from Hamilton Island. The sands were pure paradise, so lovely to walk on. The water was crystal clear and fun to swim in. It was one of the most serene beaches I’ve hung out on.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef Whitehaven Beach

If you have the chance to go to Hamilton Island, jump. If you love island life and places like Hawaii and Bali, this picture-perfect destination won’t disappoint.

Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef

Learn more about Hamilton Island here.

Buffalo Dining Club in Darlinghurst, Sydney, has cacio e pepe amazingness

Have you ever had your pasta twirled in a giant wheel of cheese before it hits your plate? It’s called cacio e pepe, it’s at Buffalo Dining Club in Darlinghurst in Sydney, Australia, and it’s heavenly.

Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia

I was first alerted to this momentous dining experience by an American friend who sent me a video of the action. You can get a glimpse of it here:

I went to try it on a Saturday night. The spot doesn’t take reservations, except for parties of seven or more and on the last Sunday of every month, and it was already packed with a two-hour wait by the time I walked up. With timely obligations, I had to leave but vowed to come back again.

It turns out, Buffalo Dining Club is a perfect place to visit for lunch on a Wednesday, around 12:30 p.m. There were plenty of seats, though be warned much of it is communal in this hip restaurant that seats around 50 people altogether.

Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia

If you’re a twosome on the patio, chances are good you’ll be rubbing elbows with your neighbor, and a substantial long table takes up much of the space in the dining room.

Cheese lovers will adore Buffalo Dining Club, which imports mozzarella from Italy and has an amazing burrata appetizer ($22 AUD). The giant hunk is melt-in-your-mouth goodness with every bite.

Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia

The cacio e pepe ($20), or spaghetti with salt, pepper, olive oil and parsley twirled in a massive wheel of pecorino cheese, is gooey and flavour-packed. The show is even better, as a server flashily spins the pasta for amazed eyes.

The gnocchi ($20) is also top-notch, delightful pillows of buffalo ricotta dough with napolitana sauce. Getting the items mentioned and sharing makes for a perfect meal for two.

Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia

The restaurant has an extensive selection of wine to pair with your Italian meal, plus strong and tasty handcrafted cocktails made with fresh ingredients.

Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia Buffalo Dining Club Sydney Australia

The staff is friendly, the atmosphere is bustling, and the food is delicious. As raved about online and having garnered attention worldwide, Buffalo Dining Club is a worthy dining destination. Learn more here.

El Karim Restaurant in Sydney serves delicious Lebanese food

The first thing you’ll notice about El Karim restaurant in Roseville, Sydney, Australia, is the tantalizing scents. Lebanese aromas of hommos, falafel and grilled eggplant waft through the air, beckoning visitors in to the restaurant that is wall-to-wall packed with people on weekend nights. The cozy eatery has a convivial vibe, with lots of happy chatter amid the delicious smells.

El Karim Restaurant Sydney

There’s also some sparse patio seating, as well as a little bar area near the entrance. Make a reservation on weekend nights to get a seat right away. When I went there a couple weeks ago, it was only about a 10-minute wait, but I watched as parties continuously walked in all night to get their fix of the tasty offerings this restaurant features.

It was easy to see why this restaurant, which underwent renovations this year, has been going strong since 1976. I was greeted immediately by owner/chef Fadi Constantine, from Beirut, who had a giant smile and mingled with tables throughout the space. The BYO menu (you can bring wine only) is full of dozens of shared plate entrées and larger mains, and I’d recommend ordering a bunch of smaller plates to try for the whole table. I could get a whole new order next time I go — everything I had was delicious, and there were so many more mouthwatering dishes I can’t wait to try next time.

I started with the hommos ($7 AUD), which came with a thick stack of pita bread and was the perfect thick and creamy consistency. The bread was soft, not soggy, and the starter was really filling.

El Karim Restaurant Sydney Hommos

The falafel ($12) was another classic and stellar choice, drizzled with tahini and served with pickles. The patties were thick and moist. I loved the generous topping, and everything went well together.

El Karim Restaurant Sydney falafel

Haloumi is always a must-have in Australia, so I was delighted there was a haloumi dish that came with another one of my faves, kalamata olives ($14). Wrap the haloumi in pita, and it’s heavenly, or eat it on your own, which I loved.

El Karim Restaurant Sydney Haloumi

An order of batata kezbarah ($12), diced potatoes with spices, lemon and garlic, perfectly rounded out the meal. The dish was filling, and I loved the Lebanese spices that covered the potatoes.

Batata Kezbarah El Karim Restaurant Sydney

Pair your meal with a speciality cocktail, beer, cider or glass of wine — again, there are dozens to choose from. Besides the menu that was a knockout with everything that was ordered, the service was swift, attentive and friendly. You really feel valued and at home in the restaurant, which made for such a fantastic experience.

Learn more about El Karim in Roseville, Sydney, Australia here.

The Axis of Awesome is a magical concert experience

Ah, I feel so privileged to have seen and met Australian comedy band The Axis of Awesome last weekend, part of the Sydney Comedy Festival, at The Concourse in Chatswood.

The Axis of Awesome Nicki Escudero

The trio writes hysterical riffs on cover songs and original tunes that get audiences singing along and laughing all at the same time. Perhaps you’ve heard the band’s amazing “4 Chords,” which samples dozens of popular songs and shows listeners most of them use the same four chords that allow the covers to seamlessly blend into each other.

The concert started with a bang of an intro, announcing singer Jordan Raskopoulos’ public transition from male to female this year. The opening bit focused on the “elephant in the room” — the fact guitarist/singer Lee Naimo is now bald — and was a perfect way to show fans the band is happier than ever. Jordan is charming, beautiful and brave, and I’m ecstatic another prominent person in the entertainment industry has chosen to live their truth proudly.

One of my favorite songs the band played was “Birdplane,” a parody of Five for Fighting’s “Superman.” The Axis of Evil version turns a dull song into an epic track, which is why the band is so amazing.

I loved the show closer, a song that summed up the EDM genre, by repeating the same dozen or so words over and over again laid on top of a thumping beat with some fist-pumping dance moves. They also played “Ode to KFC,” a song about the American fast food chain KFC.

While they didn’t play the oh-so-hysterical “Rage of Thrones,” you can always listen to it here.

The band has a new album out, Viva La Vida Loca Las Vegas, on iTunes here. Learn more about the band here, and definitely check them out next time they’re in your area.

Singapore has everything you could want in a vacation

I was recently privileged to visit Singapore for the first time. It’s about an eight-hour plane flight from Sydney, Australia, and was so incredibly fun. I stayed in Sentosa, which has basically all the entertainment you could want in one centralized location: an aquarium, a Universal Studios theme park, zip lining, beaches, a giant “merlion” you can walk up, tons of restaurants, a casino and so much more.

Singapore Nicki Escudero

I loved taking the sky tram to get everywhere (plus, the island is great for gaining steps for your Fitbit.) The tram was a wild ride that had me screaming the first time I went up, but I quickly got used to floating in the sky, especially with the amazing view.

Singapore

The first day, I wandered around without a plan, found a sky tram and hopped on. I inadvertently took one that took me away from Sentosa to Mount Faber, but it was delightful because I stumbled upon a gorgeous hike in an area populated by wild monkeys. Sadly, I didn’t see any monkeys, but there were tons of butterflies and beautiful birds.

Singapore

That night was dinner at a Palm Beach Seafood in the city, which is famous for its spicy chili crab. It was so incredibly sad to see live marine life crawling up the sides of tanks trying to escape their fate, but if seafood is your thing, I heard the crab was great. I had the noodles, bread and veggies, which were good.
Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant Singapore

The restaurant was across the street from the Marina Bay Sands, which puts on a stunning laser light show at night, which beats anything you’d see in Vegas.

Marina Bay Sands laser light show Singapore Nicki Escudero

I’m a huge baby when it comes to going into cold water, so I was thrilled the water at Sentosa Beach in March was warm enough to swim in. It was so cool to walk to the southernmost point in Asia from Sentosa, too. The bridge you take to get their wobbles, which adds to the excitement.

Southernmost point in Asia Singapore

Back to that giant Merlion. You’ll find the Merlion symbol all over Singapore, as it represents good luck. You can head to the top of the 10-story creature on Sentosa after you watch a video about the merlion’s history. I accidentally walked all the way up after seeing an open-door instead of taking the lifts. The views are just as great in the sky tram, but it’s a fun activity for kids, for sure.

Merlion Singapore

Exit the Merlion, and you’ll encounter a gorgeous orchid garden. I really loved the inclusion of both city skyscrapers and beautiful nature-filled spots in Singapore. Whatever you’re into, including luxury shopping, the country has it.

Orchid garden Singapore

Going to Little India, Chinatown and the Singapore markets away from Sentosa was really fun. The homemade wares and fashion were so fun to peruse, and they’re great places to score affordable souvenirs.

Chinatown Singapore Little India Singapore

I loved all the water sights, friendly people and fun things to do and see in Singapore. Everywhere you turned, there was something interesting to see. I’d recommend it as an Asian destination, for sure.

Urban Bites in Newtown, Sydney, is a patio destination

One of my favourite parts of town I’ve explored in Sydney is Newtown, a colourful area decorated by street art and proliferated by dozens of drool-inducing restaurants with lots of patio space for enjoying amazing Sydney weather. I recently stumbled upon Urban Bites, a friendly restaurant with a neighbourhood feel that has attentive staff and a menu serving tasty eats in generous portions.

Urban Bites Newtown Sydney patio

The spot serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, and coffee, with a full alcohol bar. The dessert case is absolutely amazing, featuring everything from cakes and tarts, to pastries. Definitely save room for a tasty treat.

Urban Bites Newtown Sydney dessert case

I was there for dinner and opted for a delicious grilled haloumi burger with rocket and olive tapenade on Turkish toast ($17.90 AUD). It was served with thickly cut chips and was so huge, I had to take half of it home. The bread was perfectly crispy, there was a ton of haloumi, and the veggies were plentiful.

Urban Bites Newtown Sydney grilled haloumi

Here’s a look at the equally massive fish and chips burger with sweet potato fries:

Urban Bites Newtown Sydney Fish and Chips

Though all the cheesecake and tiramisu made my mouth water, I gave something I’ve never tried a taste, pavlova. I had no idea the dessert was born in the Australia/New Zealand region, which is awesome, but it just looked so gosh darned pretty, I felt it would be a dream to eat. It’s a meringue-based cake that was topped with cream. I’m not the hugest meringue fan, but it was sweet and light, and the cream was amazing. I’m sure it was a great version of the dessert, and its elegance evokes the beauty of the Russian ballerina the dessert was named after.

Urban Bites Newtown Sydney pavlova

From start to finish, the meal at Urban Bites was fantastic. I loved that my meal was enough to take half of it home, the servers were courteous, and the whole atmosphere is fun and laid-back. For more information on Urban Bites, head here.

 

Surfers Paradise in Queensland, Australia, lives up to its name

I recently headed to the absolutely gorgeous Surfers Paradise in Gold Coast, Queensland. About an hour-and-a-half plane flight north of Sydney, Surfers Paradise is, not surprisingly, known for its vast abundance of beaches that are so clean and pristine.

Surfers Paradise Gold Coast

On a Monday, they’re relatively empty, too, in this place popular with tourists who come for weekend trips.

Surfers Paradise Gold Coast Queensland Australia

I was only there a couple days but was thrilled to dine at Glass, a stunning waterfront restaurant with a classily cool interior.

Glass Surfers Paradise Gold Coast

The meal was magnificent, one of my favorite pasta dishes I’ve had. The sun-dried tomato arancini starter ($13.9 AUD) with mozzarella and gremolata was tasty — perfectly fried little balls of risotto heaven ideal to share for two.

Glass Surfers Paradise Gold Coast

All the tapas sounded fantastic, from the wild mushroom and truffle croquettes and tempura zucchini flowers, to the panko crumbed eggplant wedges. If I were to go again, I would probably split several tapas dishes.

For my main, I got a veggie rigatoni ($28.9) drenched in a tasty tomato sauce, with zucchini, onions, cherry tomatoes and heaping hunks of feta cheese. Every bite was amazing, and the portion was impressively huge for a fine dining restaurant.

Glass Surfers Paradise Gold Coast

The squid ink seafood risotto ($31.9) was another generous portion and came with calamari, shrimp, fish, lobster and scallop. It was a seafood lover’s heaven and smelled marvelous.

Glass Surfers Paradise Gold Coast

Service was impeccable, from host to server to food runner. I loved the Alkoomi reisling ($9.5), which was a sweetly wonderful pairing for the pasta and arancini. I went to Glass because of a recommendation from my cab driver, and now I’m recommending it to you.

I’d love to come back to Surfers Paradise and the Gold Coast for more water activities and fine dining. It’s got an upscale San Diego vibe, which I enjoyed. Learn more here.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney, gives amazing Middle Eastern dining experience

I love restaurants that really transport you to another place with their style and décor, which is why I was thrilled to have a Lebanese feast recently at Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney

The Middle Eastern spot has two pillow-filled party rooms perfect for large gatherings, while the main dining room offers a cozy dining experience decorated with rugs from the area, pillows and comfy cushioned seating, artwork, decorated plates and hanging adornments.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney

The spot is BYO, a feature I’m always excited about in Australia because it helps you save money and sip on exactly what you want.

The vegetarian meal consisting of nearly a dozen tapas courses kicked off with hoummos ($9 AUD) and baba ganouj ($11) and a massive mound of khobz, or Lebanese bread, whose pockets allowed you to create sandwiches to your heart’s content.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney khobz

I’ve never been a huge fan of baba ganouj because of the runny versions I’ve encountered, but this one was thick, creamy, garlic-packed and delicious.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Baba Ganouj

The hoummos was top-notch, too, with a great thick consistency. Next up was tabouli ($13), in a heaping bowl, again, not overly-watery and chopped so that it was easy to scoop up and combine with the other elements. It was vibrantly green and a great khobz addition.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney hoummos and tabouli

Falafel ($7) came next, generous donut-shaped bites of the fried chickpeas. They were fried well, not overly hard or soft, and I enjoyed the sauce drizzled over the falafel.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Falafel

Sliced eggplant ($12) came out next. Again, I’m not the biggest eggplant fan, but these were heaven. Their charred skins gave off a crunchy texture and welcome smoky flavor, while the eggplant was covered in an ideal amount of oil that enhanced their taste without making them soggy.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Fried Eggplant

One of the best parts of the spread, all which came out in about 15 minutes total for a massive meal that lent itself to mixing flavors, was the spinach pie ($12). The fried feta cheese- and spinach-filled slice was pure bliss in every bite. It was a decadent vegetarian course that added new flavors to the meal.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Spinach Pie

The fried cauliflower ($12) was another filling portion, topped with tahini dressing. The meaty cruciferous vegetable quickly makes bellies full.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Fried Cauliflower

Vine leaves are one of my favorite Mediterranean dishes, and Hannibal’s ($13) didn’t disappoint. The large leaves stuffed with rice, tomato and parsley were again meaty and filling and packed a ton of flavors.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Vine Leaves

For dessert, there was baklava ($2.50), probably the best I’ve ever had. The portion offered a few bites and had the perfect ratio of dough-to-pistachio filling, baked in Middle Eastern honey syrup so that it melted in your mouth.

Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant Surry Hills Sydney Baklava

As a fan of tapas-style serving where you can try lots of small plates in one sitting, Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant is one I’d return to over and over. The spot features belly dancing for parties and on Saturday’s (call ahead to confirm times), and the beautiful atmosphere enhances the elegance of every plate.

Find more information on Hannibal Lebanese Restaurant in Surry Hills, which has another location in Glebe, here.

La Pesa Trattoria a cozy Italian spot in Darlinghurst, Sydney

La Pesa Trattoria is a lovely Italian restaurant in Darlinghurst, Sydney, Australia, with a diverse menu of tapas and mains, perfect for lingering over while sipping a bottle of wine.

La Pesa Trattoria Sydney Darlinghurst

The space is simple and relaxed, with a small main bar anchoring the front room and a larger dining room on the other side. Great for romantic dates for couples or for larger party celebrations, the restaurant offers a cozy, neighborhood feel with stellar attentive service.

La Pesa Trattoria Sydney Darlinghurst

La Pesa Trattoria Sydney Darlinghurst La Pesa Trattoria Sydney Darlinghurst

I had a tapas feast there recently, noshing on mostly cheese-filled plates that made me happy. La Pesa Trattoria’s tapas selections include Italian Salumi ($13 AUD), Hot Speck and Mozzarella Bites ($12) and Pork Hock Terrine ($15), with items like Focaccia Barese ($10) and Olives with homemade Grissini ($11) to satisfy vegetarian palates. Mains include pastas, veal and salads, all traditional Milanese recipes with an updated twist.

My meal started with the Gnocco Fritto Bowl ($8), fried bits of Italian bread paired with a cheese fondue. The cheese was flavorful and had a perfectly melty consistency, and the bread reminded me of a sopapilla-turned-savory. I loved the dish.

La Pesa Trattoria Gnocco Fritto

The Burrata Mousse ($15), a creamy mozzarella mousse with basil, croutons, confit cherry tomato and grated bottarga, was unlike anything I’d ever had. A creation of the restaurant’s chef, it was ultra-creamy and a tasty take on traditional burrata caprese.

La Pesa Trattoria Burrata mousse

Taking a break from the tasty cheeses, next up was the Rustic Wedges ($9), hand-cut potatoes with burned parmesan and truffle essence. The potatoes were ultra-filing, and I could definitely taste the truffle, which elevated their flavor.

La Pesa Trattoria Rustic WedgesThe Tomino Cheese and Figs ($15), which came with walnuts, balsamic glaze and crostini, was another gooey cheese creation that I loved for its sweet and savory melding. The walnuts were a great touch that added crunch and another flavor layer, and every element in the dish worked perfectly.

La Pesa Trattoria Tomino cheese and figs

The Cheese Board ($14) to finish the meal was a perfect ending because it had more sweet components. The gorgonzola, pecorino and taleggio cheeses were all high-quality, and paired with a spicy plum jam, crostini, olive oil and more walnuts, it would be both a great appetizer option or dessert.

La Pesa Trattoria Cheese board

If you head to La Pesa Trattoria, I’d definitely recommend going the tapas route and trying lots of the delectable bites the restaurant has to offer. You won’t go wrong with any of the cheese dishes, and the Burrata Mousse was an enjoyably innovative stand-out.

For more informationon La Pesa Trattoria, head here.

Terrarium building workshop at The Space in Sydney creates beautiful plant environments

Terarriums are beautiful small plant environments where everything from succulents to emerald ferns can thrive. I learned how to build terrariums at a workshop this weekend at The Space artist co-working space in Alexandria, Sydney, run by installation artist Melissa Carey and florist Nicole Hong from Flower Lane & Co.

Melissa Carey Nicole Flower Lane and Co. terrariums The Space Sydney

Each of the about 20 participants was treated to tea and tasty cakes and muffins during the workshop, which made building that much more fun.

Melissa Carey Nicole terrariums The Space Sydney

Everyone wore aprons to stay clean, and we had plenty of space on our workbenches to build the medium glass bowl terrarium and small hanging terrarium.

Melissa Carey Nicole terrariums The Space Sydney

Building a terrarium is simple but so much fun because there are endless ways to customize them. Take a glass bowl, and fill it about an inch high with smooth, clean stones or pebbles for drainage. Then, top those with at least another inch of soil, so the plant has something to form roots in, which it will do naturally once it’s planted. Use a stick to put a little indentation in the soil before sticking it in the dirt and patting its base to surround it with soil.

Melissa Carey Nicole terrariums The Space Sydney

Melissa Carey Nicole terrariums The Space Sydney

Then, decorate your terrarium to your heart’s content. Use colored sand, seashells or jewels to liven it up. Moss is a great addition, because it adds moisture to the environment while also making it look amazing.

Nicki Escudero terrarium The Space Sydney

The space we created the terrariums in was full of light, had cool music in the background, and was peaceful and relaxing.

Melissa Carey Nicole terrariums The Space Sydney

Carey puts on a variety of amazing-sounding crafty workshops, all of which you can find here. Her next terrarium workshop is Saturday, March 13, at The Space. To attend, head here.