So my 25 day Contiki tour is underway. Although Contiki follow the same format as Connections (a tour bus and quad share accommodation in budget hotels) the atmosphere is very different. There are 35 of us currently, and the bulk of the people are from North America - a vast change from the British dominated groups I've previously been in. There are also plenty of Aussies travelling their own country, 1 or 2 who are bizarrely from the East Coast themselves.
The tour didn't start off well for me. I was up bright and early on Sunday morning and walked to the start point hotel in plenty of time for departure at 7.30am. However, there was no sign of any young people (Contiki is for 18-35 year olds), and no sign of the Contiki coach. By 7.22am I asked reception where it was and they informed me that Contiki no longer depart from that hotel, and haven't for a whole year. It wasn't Contiki's fault I was directed to the wrong place, it was STA Travel's, who had forwarded me their own Contiki documents. They will be hearing from me! I had to hail a cab and it took just over 10 minutes to reach the new departure hotel in the King's Cross District. I arrived 5 minutes late but fortunately they hadn't left yet (and these tours are usually very prompt). I was last one on the coach and very stressed out but at least I made it. On the plus side I did at least get to experience the aftermath of a night out in Sydney's craziest district, which is also a prostitution hotspot. Lots of very hungover people who hadn't yet gone to bed by 7.40am.
Immediately the tour took us for a professional photo by Sydney Harbour, but I didn't purchase one. We then headed 2.5 hours north to the Port Stephens Area, where we had lunch and then had the choice of going sandboarding or dolphin watching from the town of Nelson's Bay. Having sandboarded twice before on this trip I opted for the dolphin watch, which wasn't the most inspirational thing I've done all trip. We caught sight of one small pod but they didn't really come close enough to get a good look/photo. The weather was also pretty dull. The skies would have been clear but for the smoke from a bush fire somewhere inland, and it looked like heavy smog. Bush fires are incredibly common here and there are signs everywhere about evacuation procedures. They rarely make the news unless they threaten homes or villages.
After the 1.5 hour cruise in the bay we checked into our hotel in Shoal Bay. It was probably the nicest hotel I've stayed in all trip, with an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, 3 jacuzzi's and a spa. We had plenty of time (unusually for a trip like this) to relax and take advantage of the facilities, as well as the nearby beach. It was then an evening of drinking and getting to know each other in the town's one bar. There are so many names to learn and I can't even recognise all the people on the coach yet. At least in New Zealand we started off with low numbers before it reached 35 near the end. 34 names to learn is pretty full on and overwhelming at the start! Anyway, I'm now at a surf camp near Coff's Harbour and will update about activities here soon.