Sunday, August 19, 2012

Places to visit in Melbourne during winter

Recently, two friends from overseas asked me where they could visit during winter. Melbourne's winter which runs over 3 months from June to August, is my least favourite time of the year for various reasons:
  • Melbourne's winter will be mild for many people from other temperate regions but is still cold for someone like me from the tropics. Though it does not snow in Melbourne or most parts of Victoria, temperature can drop to 1-2°C during dawns and maximum day temperature can go as low as to around 10°C.
  • I need to wear many layers of thick clothing, which I am more happy to do without.
  • Daylight is short from around 7 a.m. to 5-6 p.m.
  • Skies are usually downcast and gloomy, with not many sunny days.
  • Melbourne's winter is also the raining season and it is pretty bad this year, with many weeks seeing only 1-2 days of non-raining days.
  • Melbourne is a city of events - most are held during summer and relatively much fewer activities, particularly outdoor events, occur during winter.

I will not advise overseas friends to visit Melbourne during winter, unless they are coming for the skiing. But some tourists may choose this low-peak season for the relatively cheaper airfares and accommodation and less crowded destinations. You could still visit the same tourist attractions as at other times of the year but you will have to be prepared for more adverse weather conditions such as cold weather, raining, shorter daylight and undesirable sunlight conditions for good photography.

From my online research, I have come up with a list of places that you can visit and activities that are held during this time of the year.


1. Skiing and Snow Resorts in the Australian Alps

Victoria's alpine region north-east of Melbourne is a major winter sports area and a very scenic part of Australia (best viewed during autumn and spring). The ski season starts on the first weekend in June and runs through until early October, depending on conditions.

Downhill Ski Resorts

Dist
from Melb
Facilities Accommod Note
Mt Buller 246km
3h drive
27 lifts
80km ski runs
160 ha
7000 beds Most popular
Falls Creek 375km 18 lifts 4200 beds
20 hotels/lodges
Second largest
winter resort
Mt Hotham
(& Dinner Plain)
375km 13 lifts
245 ha
Wide variety Fastest growing ski
resort with an airport
Mt Baw Baw 160km
2.5h drive
25 downhill trails
37 ha, 8 lifts
10 km x-country trails
Limited
Mt Buffalo 330km 7 lifts Mt Buffalo Chalet Much smaller ski area.
Suit beginners &
intermediate skiers.

Cross Country Resorts

Back Country Ski Areas

For further details:  1, 2, 3, Snow Report


2. Warrnambool (Whale Watching)

There are at least two good reasons to visit Warrnambool during winter. Logan's Beach on the eastern side of the city is recognized as a nursery site for the Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis. In most years, 1-3 adult female whales arrive between late May and August, giving birth within days of their arrival. The young whale calf is then reared at the site, usually departing with its parent by mid to late September.  Visitors can view the whales from the Logans Beach Whale Viewing Platform. However, sightings of the whales depend largely on luck. 

Besides the Southern Right Whale, the coastline is also visited by Australian Fur Seals, Little Penguins and the Common dolphin. During the winter and early spring, albatross cruise along the coastline and can be sighted from Thunder Point, a popular coastal lookout in the town. Middle Island in Stingray Bay has a colony of little penguins.

Warrnambool is home to Australia's biggest children's festival, the Fun4Kids Festival, which is held during the first week of the Victorian winter school holidays (July), next to the Warrnambool Entertainment Centre. This unique event designed specifically for kids, has grown to be a "must do" family experience, attracting over 25,000 visitors annually. The Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground, a 20 hectare adventure playground, is a paradise for kids.

There are also many other attractions in Warrnambool such as the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village (a theme park like Ballarat's Sovereign Hill) and the foreshore, where visitors can spend hours. Warrnambool is a 3-hours drive from Melbourne via the Princes Freeway/Highway and is served by V-Line trains.


3. Melbourne Winter Masterpieces

Introduced in 2004, the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces is an annual series of major exhibitions which balance curatorial excellence with popular appeal. They are held over 100 days between June and October at the Melbourne Museum, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). The exhibits are sourced from prestigious galleries and institutions from around the world.

The Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition at Melbourne Museum last year had smashed all records for touring exhibitions in Australia, attracting a record 796,277 visitors of which more than 326,000 people were from interstate or overseas, thereby giving a major boost to Victorian tourism (Ref 1, 2).

Currently, the NGV is showing Napolean: Revolution to Empire and ACMI is showing Game Masters. Melbourne Museum is featuring The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia which is not part of the Winter Masterpieces series. You can refer here for previous Winter Masterpieces exhibitions.

The popularity of these exhibitions has a lot to do with Melbourne's winter when people prefer the warmth accorded by these indoor venues compared to outdoor activities (Ref 3).


4. Melbourne International Film Festival

Established in 1952, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is one of the world's oldest film festival (one year younger than Cannes) and is the most significant screen event in Australia. It hosts a feast of cinematic delicacies from over 50 countries for some 17 days each winter, heavily garnished with a range of parties and special events that envelop the CBD.

MIFF showcases the best in current cinema from around the world as well as retrospectives, tributes and Talking Pictures discussion programs. Since its inception, MIFF has been committed to local film - it screens a wide array of Australian films every year and hosts many celebratory world premieres of local films. Hence, apart from providing audiences with a unique window on the world, MIFF has acted as the leading intellectual and artistic catalyst in Australia's screen cultural landscape.

MIFF enjoys annual admissions of 185,000, making it one of Melbourne's significant public events.


5. Open House Melbourne

Open House Melbourne (OHM) is a not-for-profit association that runs an annual city-wide open house on the last weekend in July, providing the public a free and rare opportunity to discover a hidden wealth of architectural, engineering and historic buildings nestled around the city.

The inaugural OHM 2008 event saw 8 buildings open and more than 30,000 visits. Since then, the event has grown and by 2010 it featured 59 buildings, incorporating Docklands in addition to the CBD. In 2011, 75 buildings opened their doors to the public. This year on the 28th and 29th of July, OHM opened 100 spaces including commercial, residential and green buildings, as well as places of worship and sporting grounds. Here are some news coverage of the places: Ref 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.


6. Melbourne Cricket Ground

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is the 10th largest stadium in the world, the largest in Australia, the largest stadium for playing cricket and holds the world record for the highest light towers at any sporting venue. The MCG is within walking distance of Melbourne CBD and is serviced by the Richmond and Jolimont Railway Station. Internationally, the MCG is remembered as the centrepiece stadium of both the 1956 Summer Olympics and the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Listed on both the Victorian and the Australian National Heritage Register, the MCG is referred to within Victoria as the "Spiritual Home of Australian Sport".

Throughout winter, it serves as the home of Australian rules football, with at least one game (though usually more) held there each round. The stadium fills to capacity for the AFL Grand Final in late September or early October. During winter, especially around July, tickets are fairly easy to get and reasonably priced.

Tours of both the stadium's grounds and private areas along with its adjoining National Australian Sports Museum are available year-round and provide a special insight into the venue and its illustrious history. As part of an MCG tour,  the visitor can go behind the scenes of the stadium, sit in the coach's box, visit the media centres and change rooms, etc. Those not familiar with the game can engage an expert host to explain the rules as they watch the game.


7. Docklands Winter Program

The City of Melbourne showcased its 2012 Docklands Winter Program at Victoria Harbour with a 10-minute fireworks display at 7 pm on every Friday in July. Each display was accompanied by a music soundtrack which can be heard along the promenade at Waterfront City. In addition, roving entertainment commenced at 6.30 p.m. prior to the fireworks exhibit.


8. Melbourne Aquarium

Located besides the Yarra River in the city, the Melbourne Aquarium is another indoor attraction that is ideal for the cold days. The aquarium is divided into 4 separate “worlds” that each emphasizes a different aspect of aquatic life. It is the only place in Australia which houses the Antarctic penguins. Other highlights include daily shark and stingray dive-feeding shows in the aquarium's famous "fishbowl".


9. Scienceworks

Scienceworks, located at Spotswood, is a good educational and recreational attraction for both children and adults. It is currently showing the Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention, based on the BBC science show featuring the animated claymation characters Wallace and Gromit. Visitors will be able to explore 62 West Wallaby Street, a life-size version of Wallace and Gromit's home and discover how simple ideas transform into life-changing inventions. These colourful inventions include the Telly-scope II, the Blend-o-matic, the Thinking Cap and the Karaoke Disco Shower. The exhibition will also feature the original film sets including Top Bun Bakery, the Living Room, the Dining Room, Wallace's Vegetable Plot and the Garden & Greenhouse.


10. Walhalla Vinter Ljusfest

Started last year, the Walhalla Vinter Ljusfest is in its second year and runs from 1-26 August 2012. Created in the Swedish tradition of celebrating the winter, the Vinter Ljusfest transforms Walhalla Historic Township into a world of light, moving images and sound in the darkness of midwinter. Daily light shows operate from 6.30pm until 9.30pm. The theme for 2012 is "Hot August Night" - a tribute to the great Neil Diamond album that celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2012. Apart from the light shows, there are light trains, ghost tours, karaoke and free concerts.


11. Winter Solstice Celebrations

The winter solstice is the day of the year with the shortest daylight and fell on 23/06/2012 this year. Several places had celebrated this special day and include:
Refer here for further details.


12. Warmer Escapes in Victoria

Mildura in the state's far northwest is one of the warmest places in Victoria during winter (mean 15.3°C maximum temperature in July)  and receives the most amount of sunlight (Ref 10, 11, 12). Mildura's tourism site has suggested the following places to visit during winter:

Lakes Entrance is another place that is a few degrees Celsius warmer than Melbourne in winter and which remains popular with tourists during this time of the year.


13. Escape to a Quirky Town

This article suggested 3 towns:
  • Historic Walhalla - with its rich gold-mining history.
  • Arty Fish Creek - full of galleries from award-winning botanical paintings to weird and wonderful metal sculptures, along with top-notch food in the Flying Cow Cafe.
  • Dimboola - with a Pink Lake and Little Desert National Park.

14. Winters Festival

The Lipton Chai Latte Winter Festivals is an annual celebration, starting in June each year, that is centered around the largest outdoor ice rink in the Southern Hemisphere. Now in its 3rd year, the Winter Festivals grow beyond Australia’s East Coast to include Fremantle in Western Australia. Apart from ice-skating, other highlights of the Festival include kid’s parties, entertainment, live music and food. The venue in Melbourne was at St Kilda from 29th June to 15th July 2012.


15. Echuca Moama Winter Blues Festival

In its 13th year, the Echuca Moama Winter Blues Festival, held in July, is quickly becoming one of the region's most eagerly awaited events, attracting large crowds of Blues enthusiasts and a growing number of high quality Australian and International Blues performers.


16. Warm and Cosy Accommodation

Places with indoor spas, fire places and restaurants serving hot food could be ideal winter getaways. Some suggestions include:
  • Dandenong Mountains, Olinda, Sassafras (Ref 13)
  • Great Ocean Road 
  • Phillip Island - an advantage of winter is that the sun sets earlier so you can see the Penguin Parade much earlier at about 6 pm instead of waiting until 9 pm in summer.
  • Yarra Valley - the winter solstice is celebrated over the Shortest Lunch with fine food, wine and music, held at many of the boutique smaller wineries (Ref 14, 15).
  • Grampians
  • Spa country & the Macedon Ranges such as Daylesford, Castlemaine 
  • Ballarat

17. Chill On Ice Lounge & Ski Lodge

This is the complete opposite of the previous suggestion. Instead of seeking a warm and cosy place, why not chill it out in Melbourne? Melbourne winter is sufficiently cold to put on extra clothings but not that cold to experience the winter wonderland. Look at photos of the Ice Lounge and Ski Lodge, which is located on Southbank. My wife told me that places with similiar concepts were very common in China many years ago. I will like to visit the Ice Lounge but am put off by the admission price.

There was also a Disney on Ice show "Let's Celebrate" at Hisense Arena from 4-9 July 2012.


Winter Suggestions: Ref a, b, c, d, e, f

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Buying an Imported Used Car

Update: Quite many people have emailed me for the contact details of the person. As I am quite busy, I may have missed emails or forget to reply. You can email him directly. His name is Efrem and his email address is lightyearsfast@gmail.com

We have a Mitsubishi Magna and with two child seats, there is hardly any space to bring visiting relatives and friends around. Hence, we decided to get a car with higher passenger capacity. A new car will be too expensive for our budget and I am not willing to pay a premium for a depreciating asset class. The only option is to go for a second-hand car.

A google search on "what family car to buy" leads me to a discussion thread on the Whirlpool forum site. Several posters on that thread suggested Toyota Tarago. Bought by their arguments, I did a search for Toyota Tarago on carsales.com. I came across a Tarago that has very low kilometres (69,450 km), within my budget range and located not too far away from where I stay. Upon reaching home, I showed my wife this car listing and she was too pleased with the car appearance, as shown from its listed photos. The only cause of concern is that 69,450 km seems too low for a 2003 year model, as even listed 2008-9 Tarago models clock up much higher kilometres.

I had decided to give the seller a call. I was told the listed car was already sold. However, he told me he has another almost identical car selling for the same price. This made me very wary as Toyota Tarago is a 8-seater people mover so it will not be common for most families to own one, let alone two similar vehicles of low kilometres which are being sold at the same time. The thought that he may acquire these cars illegally crossed my mind. Nevertheless, I made an appointment with him to inspect the car the following day (a Saturday).

With utterly no mechanics skills and knowledge, I spent the whole Friday night in front of my computer, searching the internet for articles and Youtube videos on how to inspect a used car. I regretted not having asked my neighbour for some tips on car inspection prior to making the appointment. Knowing that two pairs of eyes are much better than one, I insisted that my wife should be actively involved in the inspection process. We arranged for a friend to help look after the kids at home so that we would not get distracted during inspection.

The seller lives in Taylor Hills which is north of Caroline Springs. The first question I asked him is why he has two Toyota Taragos for sale. He told me he had been a car mechanics for 30+ years, used to run a shop in Sunshine selling second-hand cars and is now semi-retired, importing used cars from Japan for sale. He showed me the Toyota which was parked behind his garage and was just picked up from Melbourne Airport the day before or a few days earlier. He told me that this Toyota is in fact in a better condition than the one just sold. It has slightly lower mileage (about 62,000 km) and is silver in colour, which I actually prefer over the white colour vehicle that he had just sold. However, I found that the car is called Toyota Estima (model is Aeras ACR30), not the Toyota Tarago that was listed. He explained that the Japanese version of Toyota Tarago is called Estima and both are in fact the same vehicle. I later found out from Wikipedia that the US version is called Toyota Previa. I suppose he has a valid reason to list it as Tarago as most Australians would not have heard of Estima, hence greatly limiting the number of searches for Estima.

He went through in detail with us the different parts of the car, even lifting it with a carjack to enable inspection of the car's base. Everything looks in tip-top condition and for a novice like me, the car really appears very new and not like what I would expect of a 9-year old car. We are pretty impressed with the features, such as the reverse camera, gear on the dashboard, xenon headlights, tinted windows and second/third row chairs that are highly-maneuvrable - slidable, swervable and can be flattened. There are three anchor points behind the third row seats which allow harness attachment to child car seats. Unfortunately the GPS system and TV are only operational in Japan, not in Australia. But the CD, DVD and USB player, and radio are sufficient for our needs. We also did a test drive (with a test drive plate). The very large side mirrors and elevated height provides an enlarged and unobstructed field of view which is particularly helpful when changing lanes or turning into another road.

Toyota Estima 01

I asked him why the mileage is only 62,000 km for a 9-year old car. He explained that Japanese do not drive much, usually only during weekends and over short distances, preferring instead to take public transport. The following online sources (Ref 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) also give other reasons such as high parking fees and the need to undergo periodic expensive roadworthy tests called "shaken". The seller showed me an online Japanese auction site where he sourced the cars from and all the cars listed there are of very low kilometres.

When I expressed my intent of purchase, he told me that I would need to wait for another 2-3 weeks for roadworthy test, registration and compliance works such as the checking of seat belts and change of wheels for conformance to Australian standards. He has another people mover - a white colour Nissan Elgrand - ready for immediate driveaway as all its paperwork and compliance checks had been completed.  He explained that this Nissan Elgrand is more powerful (3 litres and 6 cylinders compared to the 2.4 litres 4 cylinders Toyota Estima) and has more luxurious features such as leather seat upholstery and woodgrain dash. I actually prefer the external appearance of the Toyota Estima as the Nissan is white and with a box-like appearance, looks more like a van. I asked the seller which has better resale value. He said probably the Toyota. Coupled with the fact that this Nissan is less fuel-economical and more expensive by a thousand dollar, I decided to stick with the Toyota.

I placed a deposit and the seller said he would take care of all the paperwork. He recommended Just Car Insurance as it specializes in doing imported cars and advised that I should get the insurance ready by the day of pickup. I called Just Car a few days later and was shocked by the $1330 premium quoted. Although this is reduced to $1199 with online quotation and correction of a detail that I initially supplied, this is still extremely expensive. From my online research, I realize most insurance companies are not willing to insure imported vehicles. Only a handful of companies do and their premiums are exorbitant. The reasons are that these companies see imported cars carrying a greater risk as they may not be built to comply with Australian standards and the spare parts may be expensive or difficult to obtain.  Hence, I am faced with two concerns - the expensive premium and whether it is going to be difficult to obtain spare parts for the Toyota Estima.

I called the seller and told him that I am not aware that the premium is going to be that costly. He understood my position and said he would return me the deposit if I do not wish to go ahead with the purchase. He also reassured that the Toyota Estima is the same as Toyota Tarago and there will no problem sourcing for the spare parts. This was confirmed by a few online sources (see 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) The earlier models Lucida and Emina (made before the year 2000) are narrower and shorter than the standard model (Ref 11) but according to this post on Whirlpool forum, it will be fine if it is the later ACR30 model whose chassis is identical to the Australian version.

With the spare parts problem settled, the expensive premium remains a problem. I did an online quotation with Suncorp Metway which gave me a premium of $1100+. Shannons Insurance did have a lower premium of $850 but when I called the company, I was asked whether I am a member of any car club and whether I am using the car on weekends alone or on weekdays. The company refused to insure me because I am not a motor car enthusiast and had recommended me to try Just Car instead.

This Toyota Estima still greatly appeals to me. It will not be possible to get a local Toyota Tarago of the same condition, mileage and features (some call them "bells & whistles") for the same price as the Japanese import. Furthermore I have a positive experience with the seller and will not like to go through the hassles of arranging babysitting for future rounds of inspection. This was during the weekend and some insurance companies were not contactable. Not giving up, I decided to call them on the coming Monday. I was quoted $900+ by Lumley Special Vehicles Insurance and $719.70 by Enthusiast Underwriting. I had previously contacted RACV Insurance on the Saturday and as they require an underwriter to quote for an imported car, I called them again on Monday and was quoted $790.28. I decided to go with RACV Insurance though it is more expensive than Enthusiast because I have not heard of Enthusiast before while RACV is reputable, omnipresent and is a brand name that I can trust. In addition, it also provides a 21-day car hire. I only recently read of this post that suggests NRMA so I do not know whether it would offer a cheaper premium. I have also found two websites (12, 13) that provide contact details of insurance companies that cover imported cars.

Insurance companies seem to apply a blanket bias on cover for imported cars. But if you analyze more deeply, a single treatment for all cases is not justifiable. The need for compliance work means that imported cars are tested and made to conform to Australian safety standards before being allowed on the roads. The argument that spare parts will be difficult to source is fair enough. But this does not apply to all car makes and models. For example, Toyota Estima ACR30 is the same as Toyota Tarago so there will no problems of repair and maintenance. Hence insurance companies should look individually at each specific model and year of manufacture in determining the risk, rather than lumping all imported cars together. Among the various reasons given (Ref 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) for buying used Japanese cars include their excellent well-maintained conditions and less engine troubles in the event of an accident. Also people movers are usually used by families to carry their children around. They are more likely to be matured drivers, rather young rash drivers. For the various reasons given, Toyota Estima and other similiar Japanese imports should actually present a lower road risk relative to local second-hand cars which will have far higher kilometres and that are not so well maintained. For these reasons, I think insurance companies should re-examine their existing assumptions towards specific categories of imported cars.

Text shown on the LCD screen and a few buttons are in Japanese so I was searching for online user manuals on Toyota Estima to download. I did not find any. The Australian Toyota site does not provide downloadable manuals. The US Toyota site does provide online manuals to US customers only. However, I did find a forum and two Facebook pages (set up by the fans) - one is the model guide while the other are FAQs. The seller is very kind and helpful. He spent a lot of time demonstrating the different parts of the car on the three occasions we met him, during the first inspection, when I passed him my driver licence for registration and when we finally picked up the car. He is patient and helpful in answering the many questions that I have asked him. He even told me to call or email him if I have any problem with the car.

I realize that you can actually import car into Australia by yourself. But the procedures (see 14, 15, 16, 17, 18) appear to be cumbersome and lengthy. You also have to take on a certain level of risk, such as not seeing the car physically (though photos are available) before committing to buy it. If I am to buy another imported car, I will again approach this seller. My good experience with him made me believe that he is a reliable and trustworthy person. You are welcome to email me for his contact details if you are considering to buy an imported car through him.