Bucket List #315 – Revisiting My Childhood Vacation Spots

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Remembering My Childhood Vacations

Growing up, I would often feel envious of the exotic trips some of my more well-to-do classmates would take each spring or summer holiday. While my childhood vacations would be a week here and there in Newcastle or Ocean Shores, the stories from my own adventures would often pale in comparison to those of classmates who had been to Paris or DisneyWorld. 

(I reflect more on this in my own post on visiting DisneyWorld as an adult)

disney world california goofy
30 year old CWB is a little too excited about meeting Goofy.

My family was not wealthy. Mum & Dad were teachers trying to raise four kids with wildly different needs and wants. I had a brother with juvenile arthritis and I had behavioral issues. There were dance classes, taekwondo lessons, and Girl Scouts. We got spoiled rotten at Christmas.

It was because of all this that we couldn’t afford the international vacations some of my classmates enjoyed. The farthest we’d get from home on a holiday would be Newcastle or the Sunshine Coast.

At the time, these places seemed far away and exotic to me. I didn’t step onto a plane until I was 24.

I have fond memories of camping on the shores of Lake Menindee or waking up at sunrise to run to the beach in Mooloolaba. The world seemed so much bigger and stranger through the eyes of my childhood self.

kid with teddy bear, dummy, and pillow
Young Aussie on the Road was always up for an adventure.

Getting Older

During high school, when you begin to judge everything in your life with the same harshness that others do, I remember feeling like our holidays were somehow sad or shabby.

We didn’t stay in fancy hotels or go on cruises – we took our caravan to Jackadgery or Woolgoolga. I would pack piles of White Dwarf magazines or Dungeons & Dragons manuals knowing that we’d do more relaxing in our hotel or on the beach than tourism.

I could talk to my friends about my holidays. They were in the same financial boat as my family or worse. I’m embarrassed to say, I would scoff quietly at those friends whose trips took them to less glamorous locales like Bonshaw or Copeton Dam. I was keenly aware of the pecking order when it came to vacations.

To the more popular kids – if they even deigned to ask what I’d done for a holiday – my answers would be noncommittal. Better to not answer at all than to let them know we hadn’t gone anywhere.

“Oh, you went to Dubai? That’s cool!”

Meanwhile, I spent my holiday sharing the fold-out couch with my brother at my grandma’s place.

baby in backpack
Off on an adventure with my parents at the age of one. Jenolan Caves, I believe.

The Perspective of Age

As an adult, however, I realize that my childhood vacations were nowhere near ‘sad’. My petulant teenage self, caught up in the invented importance of the high school hierarchy, had done himself and his family a disservice.

Far from being sad or shabby, my childhood vacations are now some of my most cherished memories.

We might not have needed passports to go on our trips, but that did not make them any less fun. My family would make trips to DreamWorld or the Australian Zoo. We would each get $10 or $20 in spending money that my brothers and I would waste on Warhammer miniatures. Mum would cook delicious meals each night and we’d go to the beach every morning.

dreamworld childhood vacation
A visit to Dream World was always the highlight of a childhood vacation.

It’s only now as an adult that I realize the immense cost of a vacation for six (and later seven) people. My recent honeymoon set me back $6,000, and that was just paying for Adventures Around Asia and me! I can’t even fathom having to pay for 6 or 7 people to go on vacation.

More than that, as adulthood sends all of us spiraling off in different directions, I miss the simple pleasures of “I Spy” or “20 Questions” played on a long road trip. I miss being excited for McDonalds or fish and chips, precisely because we couldn’t have them every week or even every month. I miss the nervous excitement as we drove up to DreamWorld, precisely because we weren’t spoiled in our day to day lives.

I miss being with my family without the weight of jobs and bills and real problems hanging over us.

I wear rose-colored glasses, I’m sure, but there was a simple beauty to those childhood vacations we would take.

When I was creating my bucket list, I didn’t want it to be only lofty aspirations in faraway lands. I wanted to someday have the chance to recreate those childhood holidays either with my family or, failing that, with my new wife and our eventual family.

prince charming snow white ballet
I just include this photo of me because it’s funny

Recreating My Childhood Vacations

It was rare that a year passed without my family and I going on some kind of vacation. 

Even if it was just the long, dull drive from Mallanganee or Mudgee to Newcastle to spend Christmas with my grandparents and extended family, we would still spend time away from home.

There are plenty of places that we visited over the years of which I have fond memories: Bribie Island and Townsville in Queensland, as well as Ocean Shores and Woolgoolga in New South Wales. Perhaps, someday I’ll get to recreate all of them, but the four that stand out most keenly to me are below.

lake menindee sunrise
Photo courtesy of David Molloy Photography

Lake Menindee

My memories of our camping trip to Lake Menindee in the NSW Outback are faded at best. I wasn’t even five when my parents made the bold decision to take their two kids on a camping trip.

What I do remember – perhaps aided by photos I have seen since – is the stark beauty of that vast lake set amidst the otherwise barren red earth of desert that stretches for countless miles to the west and north.

Much like Sossuvlei and Deadvlei in Namibia, there are remarkable contrasts to be found at the Menindee Lakes. Twisted trees of jet black or bone white jut out from water that ranges in color from muddy brown to a remarkably vivid green. When water levels are high, there is a carpet of greenery on the fringes of the lake. Waterbirds spiral overhead. Pelicans terrify kids too foolish to know better than to approach them.

lake menindee childhood vacation sunset
Photo courtesy of Ian Cochrane

Despite how little I remember of the trip, my abiding fascination with the Outback I called home for three years before my eighth birthday draws me back there. I would sorely love to pack a few tents, get a convoy of cars together, and head out there again someday. My American wife could teach us the proper preparation of s’mores, while we could terrify her with tales of drop bears and bunyips lurking in the dark.

I’ll make it happen someday.

carnarvon gorge childhood vacation
Photo courtesy of Will Brown

Carnarvon Gorge

Like my Lake Menindee vacation, my family’s visit to Carnarvon Gorge is more a series of moments remembered in flashes than a coherent narrative in my head. For some reason, I always associated it with the chirping rosellas of Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, even though the two attractions lie a 14-hour drive apart. The remembrances of a seven-year-old boy are unreliable, clearly.

Our family had expanded from four to six with the addition of my two younger brothers, who insisted on getting as dirty as humanly possible. Not content with splashing around in the river or on its muddy banks, they even dragged their wet bodies through the ashes of our fire.

I remember taking baths in a giant, plastic yellow tub warmed with water from the fire, my siblings, cousins, and I would complain that it was too hot or too cold no matter what our parents did.

I recall going on short bush-walks through the area’s stunning natural gorges and wilderness, spotting sun-dappled pools and marveling at the strange birdsong that followed us as we traveled.

carnarvon gorge hiking
Photo courtesy of Will Brown

It’s the kind of place that I feel like I would appreciate far more as an adult than I did as a child, and while it seems unlikely I’ll make the return trip with cousins I rarely speak to, it could well be a place Richelle and I take our own children someday.

I might even see if I can borrow Mum & Dad’s big, yellow tub.

newcastle nobby's beach sunset
Photo courtesy of Roanish

Newcastle

If there is one place I spent almost as much time in as my home, it is the city of Newcastle. I’ve waxed lyrical about Newcastle’s unfulfilled potential in the past, as well as highlighting the many things do in Newcastle.

Growing up, Newie and nearby Lake Macquarie acted as my home away from home. I spent every Christmas bar one there from 1983 to 1995, as well as spending countless other childhood vacations there visiting grandparents and cousins.

My grandparents are gone now and most of my cousins have moved away – both physically and emotionally – but I still love every visit I make to Newcastle. In the lead-up to my recent wedding, my mother, wife, and I made two weekend trips to the city to run errands, but still found time for brunches on Darby Street, fish & chips on the beach with my sister’s family, and a spot of shopping at Charlestown Square.

lake macquarie australia childhood vacations
Photo courtesy of Dave

My own kids won’t grow up making those annual pilgrimages to Newcastle. They’ll never understand the excitement of midnight mass at Toronto Church ahead of a 6am wakeup to see what Santa brought or the dire boredom of sitting in my father’s parents’ living room waiting until it was time to leave.

But perhaps they’ll get to grow up with memories of Redhead, Dudley, Merewether, and Nobby’s Beach. I’ll get to take them to Blackbutt Nature Reserve to feed kangaroos, drag them to a Newcastle Knights’ game, and then duck away for the weekend (assuming we can find a sitter) to wander around the Hunter Valley wine region.

It doesn’t sound half bad!

sunshine coast alexandra headland paraglider childhood vacation
Photo courtesy of texaus1

The Sunshine Coast

For three or four years of my teenage life, my family would make the annual spring pilgrimage from my sleepy hometown of Ben Lomond to the comparative glitz and glamour of Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.

We would spend a week – two in 1999 – staying in the penthouse apartment of the Spinnaker, a little apartment complex in the shadows of towering apartment buildings and hotels that overawed a country bumpkin like me.  Our home was a three-bedroom apartment into which we would squeeze the six (later seven) of us. 

My sister and I would share a room, my tiny little portable CD player spinning the same Tina Arena or Corrs CD for days on end, while my younger brothers would share a queen bed in the next room.

We’d spend our mornings on Mooloolaba beach, always careful to be back in the shade before the sun brought its full intensity to bear at 11 or 12. If we were lucky, we’d grab ice cream cones on the way back to our apartment.

mooloolaba sunrise
Photo courtesy of Paul Balfe

Our days would alternate between the occasional lazy day at home and going out to visit whatever attraction my parents could fit into their budget. If we were lucky, it was the Big Pineapple or Underwater World.

If we were unlucky, it was an awful tourist trap like Nostalgia Town. I don’t think my siblings have ever truly forgiven me for campaigning so hard for that.

Our evenings were spent eating a home-cooked dinner and either watching TV or standing on the balcony watching a storm roll in over the ocean.

Perhaps I remember my time on the Sunshine Coast most fondly because these trips took place between the ages of 13 and 16. I was discovering new hobbies and passions, falling head over heels in love with girls at a glance, and frantically scribbling down ideas for video games, movies, and board games that I could never hope to actually bring to fruition. Without the constraints of adult reality burdening me, I felt as if I could do or be anything.

And maybe that’s what draws me back to Mooloolaba: that belief that if I could just recreate that holiday, I would be able to recapture that sense of youthful optimism.

sunshine coast sunset
Photo courtesy of Dualiti Photos

Recreating the Mooloolaba Vacation

In 2013, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to revisit the Sunshine Coast as an adult. With my being home for a few weeks to renew my Chinese work permit, Mum seized on the opportunity to wrangle the entire brood and get us on a holiday together.

While our quaint little apartment in the Spinnaker is long gone – demolished to make way for bigger and better things – we had a hard time finding Twin Waters resort accommodation that could fit us all. With our family expanding from six to eleven over the years with the addition of spouses and kids and vastly different budgets to take into account, it took all of my mother’s powers of research to find the right fit.

family vacation
My brothers and I entertaining my niece, Alchemy.

I wish I could say that returning to the Sunshine Coast allowed me to recapture that bright-eyed optimism that warred with my teenage angst during past vacations, but such things can never be recaptured.

I can say, however, that it was a fantastic chance to reconnect with my family. We went bowling and played laser tag, and had delicious family meals with all eleven us crammed around a table. There was ice cream and beach days, rainy days spent playing board games or watching daytime TV, and revisiting places we hadn’t seen since we were kids.

In the six years since our visit (how has it been so long already), we’ve managed to take two more family vacations, and I credit my Mum’s idea of having this trip with that. 


Time Travel of a Sort

Perhaps my desire to revisit childhood vacations comes from a desire to recapture the innocence and optimism of that time in my life, or to rekindle the bonds I had with my siblings and parents then. Lord knows, those relationships have evolved and changed over time. In some cases, we’ve grown closer in our adult years, but there are definitely siblings I feel I’ve drifted from as our lives have gone in different directions.

Regardless of the reason, our trip back to Mooloolaba in 2013 at least achieved the latter. I may not have gone back to wide-eyed optimism, but I did get to bond with my siblings and parents after being in China for a year.

Have you ever revisited one of your childhood vacation spots?

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