The one where I return to my former college town for a wedding, splash cash on fine food, and catch an unplanned train ride home after late night drunken drama derails my original plans.

Coming Home

DID YOU KNOW: Armidale’s University of New England was the first university in Australia to be set up outside of a capital city.

There’s something about returning to an old stomping ground being a little bit older, wiser, and more financially well off than you had been when you called it home. Flashing a credit card at a cafe you couldn’t afford during your Uni days or splashing out the $6 for your favourite beer at a bar seems a far cry from the days when a box of cask wine and a Hero roll from the all night service station were lavish expenditures.

It’s a reality of life that as we get older friends start to marry and have children and do other such things that those of us with the travel bug might not see the sense in. And with most of us dispersed across the ground (or even the globe) – it becomes a pricey thing to make an appearance at these special events.

I lived and studied for my Bachelor of Arts in Armidale from 2002 to 2004, but having grown up just half an hour’s drive away in the tiny hamlet of Ben Lomond (population fifty) – it had been a pretty constant presence in my life since about 1996. I’ve got fond memories of perching on the garishly coloured play equipment out the front of Hannah’s Arcade and eagerly tearing open a new booster pack of Magic the Gathering cards at the age of twelve. My first kiss was had sitting in the gutter of a cul de sac in an quiet residential street somewhere near the colleges, and I can’t even recall every drunken expedition myself and my theatre buddies embarked on during our three years together.

But when my good friend Chris announced he was getting married, I knew I had to make an appearance. Having been abroad for the last two years has meant I’ve missed a number of weddings and births – and with my immediate future further claimed by lady travel – it would probably be my last chance to see a lot of good people again before I packed my bags and hopped a plane. With our budget tight due to the recent Cairns scuba excursion (entry about that is on the way) and Fallon’s friend Adam’s imminent Australian visit – as well as my upcoming Fijian tour – it was difficult to scrape together the cash to make it happen.

Still, Friday afternoon rolled around and the two of us hopped a train from Epping up to Newcastle, where we’d meet my old mate Randy for the driving portion of the trip. The sad reality about Australia is that it’s a big country that still thinks rather small. Public transport options to Armidale include an $85 train (one way), a $90 bus that takes ten hours, and $300-$400 for a round trip flight on a budget carrier. A far cry from South Korea’s $30 cross country KTX or a short jump between states in the US of A.

I’ve mentioned before my love of a good road trip, and while Randy is good company and my iPhone provided enough Journey and Queen to rock a small town, there’s precious little to see on the five our drive into the New England at the best of times. Less still when the sun has gone down. We contented ourselves with a few rousing rounds of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – which is definitely my travel game of choice. It requires being a bit of a cinephile, but it’s a fun challenge and gets addictive as you try to find more and more obscure links.

Rediscovering Armidale

DID YOU KNOW: Armidale was settled in the 1830s and gets its name from Armadale on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It is a cathedral city for both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

We arrived in Armidale at around 11pm and after picking up a fourth member of our party, retired to the Armidale Motel. Armidale is bypassed by the New England Highway for those traveling farther afield, but there’s a slew of respectably priced hotels and motels on the fringe of town. For $160 a night we got a two bedroom unit serviced by a small kitchenette, a surprisingly roomy bathroom, free wireless (not as common in Australia as it should be), and Austar in our room. Fallon and I shared the double bed in the living area while Deano and Randy took singles in a the second room.

If I had to list a drawback for what was a nice spot to spend a few nights, it would be that it’s not close to town. While Armidale’s not so big that you can’t just walk to anywhere you’d like to be (and it has the arbitrary taxis and bus service to assist the less active) – the town centre does sit at the bottom of a bowl, which makes any return trip a testing excursion for even the healthiest of us. Fallon’s run a half marathon recently and found the steep hills and 3000 foot altitude a real test.

Of course, all of the above is made redundant if you brought a car.

Capturing the reds at Moore Park Inn

Saturday was the day of the wedding, but with it proceedings not due to kick off until 3pm we opted to head into town and kill some time.

I’m an unabashed lover of Armidale. Rural New South Wales might not have the best of reputations, but the presence of the University of New England has made Armidale something of a cosmopolitan hub in a region where popped colours, souped up utes, and dogs named Bluey are the norm. While it’s smaller than neighbouring Tamworth (Australia’s country music capital) – it has a decent night life, art galleries, a cinema that shows art films from time to time, and a number of other amenities that make it a lot more pleasant than a visit to nearby population centres such as Inverell or the aforementioned Tamworth.

Central to Armidale’s charm is that it is a truly ‘New England’ town. The summers are hot and dry; the autumns are a beautiful mix of reds, oranges, and yellows; the winters are cold to the point of occasional snowfall; and the springs are a vibrant explosion of green and bright floral colours. Alas, the weather we encountered as we meandered through Armidale’s paved mall arcade was more in line with the love-child of winter and autumn than the warm spring day we’d hoped for.

Still, we met up with a few more friends and took a late breakfast/early lunch at the Courthouse Cafe. Aptly named, given it is across the arcade from Armidale’s courthouse. The staff were enthusiastic about having a large group of young, cashed up, and boisterous customers – and bent over backwards to ensure we were comfortable – moving tables around, bringing the specials chalkboard to us, and generally hanging over us in favour of their few regulars who seemed content to huddle over their coffees and stare listlessly out at the grey sky.

Prices were, compared to Sydney, reasonable and the portions across all five different dishes we ordered were quite healthy. My hotcakes with maple syrup and bacon were particularly good, and I had a bite of Fallon’s summer crepes and wished I’d given them a closer look before ordering. I heard similarly rousing reviews of their decadent big breakfast (a heart attack inducing mix of bacon, sausage, beans, and eggs) and the chicken fettucini. Deano declared his eggs Benedict ‘the best he’d ever had’ – which I’d consider high praise unless he’s only had them once before.

I doubt many of you will ever breeze through Armidale and if you do, might balk at the idea of having to park and walk through the very picturesque arcade to get there – but I’d recommend a visit if you’re looking for a hearty breakfast or a light lunch. It’s small and maybe a bit more expensive than McDonalds or Subway would be – but its friendly staff and good food make it a winner in my book.

A word of advice: Steer clear of the criminally overpriced Rumours cafe. I’ve not even seen a Sydney cafe attempt to justify a $20 sandwich.

After fueling for the day ahead, we splintered off into various groups. I picked up a few travel books at Dymocks (Lonely Planet’s ‘The Big Trip’ and Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel 2010′ – reviews to come) and we made a stop at Sticky Fingers in Hannah’s Arcade. After having forked out close to $12 for 300 grams of candy at Sydney Airport a week earlier – it was nice to get 400 grams for $9. With candy shops becoming a bit of a rarity, it’s also just a bit of a thrill to go into a fully stocked one and look around at all of the different varieties. From memory, they do a mean milkshake there too.

The day’s only other detour of note was a visit to Civic Video where an ex girlfriend of mine (and Deano’s) still works. Coupled with the presence of another friend who had a history with her, it must have been a surreal experience to see two college sweethearts and one near miss all standing side by side with grins on our faces. There’s an entry to come about this particular ex – as she played a large part in my desire to travel.

Anyway, after the hugs were had and pleasantries were exchanged, it was time to retire to our motel room to freshen up for the impending nuptials. The one lesson I learned? I need to reconsider my definition of semi-formal after showing up to a wedding rich in suits and vests in only a button up shirt and jeans.

The ceremony and reception both took place at Armidale’s Moore Park Inn – famed in the area for Archie’s on the Park restaurant and its large, rambling grounds. We certainly got to take in a lot of the latter during the outdoor ceremony and ensuing hour and a half of general confusion while we waited for the bridal party to return from their photo opportunities.

 

It was a spring day, but the air held the cool of autumn as wysteria petals tumbled lazily down onto the thick carpet of green grass in the Inn’s courtyard. The low hum of bees melted in nicely with the low murmur of conversation, and there was a decidedly Victorian feel to it all as thirty or forty people lulled in the grass, held court by the open bar, or gathered around the tables scattered about the lawn. The serenity and cool alone would have been worth the price of a trek up from Sydney – but free beers and finger food delivered by the Inn’s young and cheerful staff were an added bonus.

I’ll save discussion of the wedding proper for my non travel related blog, but suffice to say the Inn put on a good show. The food was scrumptious, the staff were all eager to help out, and they’d done a fabulous job of turning the hall into a site befitting a celebration of a love made eternal. My miso soup with scallop dumplings and Scotch fillet on a bed of creamy mash were both of a high standard, and I heard similar praise about the other menu items. Special praise also goes out to Fallon’s new friend Brooke – whose wedding cake was an exquisite finish to the three course meal.

DID YOU KNOW: A wedding reception is named for a newly married couple first ‘receiving’ society by hosting them for a meal. It is also traditionally a way for a couple to thank guests for their presence at the wedding.

Our night inevitably led us to more familiar Armidale pursuits – drinking in an Armidale bar. And while the New England Hotel might no longer be a hot-spot and Mojos has gone out of business again – we found a good ground and surprisingly cheap libations at the White Bull. The stylish and more upmarket pub has sprung up in the years since we attended university, but it felt like times of old as we watched college kids alternate between swarming the dancefloor and abandoning it in favour of smokes and fresh drinks.

Getting artsy at the reception

After almost a year of Sydney drinking, it was a nice surprise to get a good beer for $5 and a glass of Canadian Club & Coke for $6 – and I think we all overindulged in drinks as the night wore on. A few of us struck up conversation with the random girls who insisted on usurping half of the table we’d laid claim to – and that gave us dance partners at the end of the night.

There are few things in life sadder than five men forming a loose circle on the dance floor and dancing. Far too many of my nights out in uni ended that way.

Cue the Drama

It wouldn’t have been a night out in Armidale without the curfew calling an end to our festivities and some high drama. It’s not the appropriate forum to go into details – but suffice to say we spent a long, bitterly cold hour walking Armidale’s darkened streets looking for one of our party after he and another friend had an all in argument that I still don’t quite understand the genesis of.

We’re now on the morbidly expensive Countrylink X-Plorer back to Sydney – having opted to find alternate transportation so we can get home before 9pm. I don’t know how the company justifies an $85 price tag – but when it’s the only way to get from Armidale to the big smoke, I guess there’s precious little we can do but stump up the cash and suffer through their soggy on board microwave meals. The fish and chips were not worth the $9 price tag. If you’re ever on board – bring your own food.

It’s not all bad. The ride, while a tad repettiive over seven hours, does serve up some beautiful scenery that very few Australians (and even less tourists) get the chance to appreciate. So much attention is paid to the hot spots of Sydney, Melbourne, and the Queensland coast that the green part of the interior is often completely overlooked as backpackers bypass it on their way to Uluru or Darwin.

The New England might not have much of a night life, absolutely no beaches, and very little to appeal to young jet-setters: but there’s something to be said for its rolling green hills, large tracts of dry rainforest, and the brush with true Australia you can’t get from overpriced souvenirs or Sydney streets crowded with Asian bakeries, Indian restaurants, and American retail chains.

This part of the country will always be home to me, and while I might not have any plans in the immediate future to call it that again, I do intend to someday settle down somewhere in the cool highlands and make a home for myself.

I’ll be glad to get back to the city, and my credit card isn’t happy with the $190 charge for two tickets home, but it’s always nice to see an old place through new eyes. Better still to do it with good friends at your side..

Links

Armidale Motel

Moore Park Inn

White Bull Hotel

Sticky Fingers

Lonely Planet