Justine Tyerman spends the weekend in an aviary at Palm Beach
I'm living in an aviary here at Palm Beach.
I can't concentrate on my writing this morning. Visitors are flocking in to see me, no doubt remembering the delicious morning tea I laid out for them yesterday. They're flying in from all directions, close enough for me to hear and feel the soft whir of their wings.
As a Kiwi, I'm astonished by the variety and colours of these birds, the especially the parrots - the rainbow lorikeets are ridiculously pretty creatures. They look like fragments of a feathery rainbow with their bright red beaks and multi-coloured plumage - blue-mauve heads and bellies, green wings, tail and back, and orange-yellow breasts.
Soon after, a pair of beautiful rose-pink and grey galahs fly in for a snack of oats and nuts. They are obviously lovers, hopping in unison up and down the railing around the decking of our beautiful Palm Beach house, stopping to canoodle between courses. Yesterday there was a breeze blowing and they were struggling to stay upright on the railing. It was hilarious watching them topple off their perches, flapping their wings furiously to recover their balance.
Soon after, a flock of much larger sulphur-crested cockatoos muscle their way onto the scene – large white parrots with an impressive bright yellow crest on their heads, they are bold and bossy birds.
Then a dainty little corella appears - with blue-rimmed eyes, yellow under-wings, and a white crest, or mohawk, as my son-in-law describes it. She has a quizzical habit of turning her head on one side to eye me.
They were so entertaining, I ended up with hundreds of photos and videos of their antics, which the rest of the household, once they arose from their slumbers, perused with mild amusement. By then the birds were nowhere to be seen. The young ones were more interested in breakfast than birds.
We had run away from the city for a long weekend at Palm Beach, an hour north of Sydney. I found the house late one night on Love Home Swap, an international house swap website I've become seriously addicted to since joining in 2013. I sent a message to home owners, Katya and Barry, doubting such a luxurious home would be available over a holiday weekend but next morning, there was a friendly reply saying "Yes – what time will you arrive? We'd love to meet you."
There's a spine-tingling sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety as you get your first glimpse of a home swap you have organised from far away. Despite having done it many times all around the world, 12 to be exact, I always find I'm holding my breath, half expecting the whole thing to be a figment of my over-active imagination. A home like this, rent-free, for a long weekend?
"Too good to be true," my rational self told me.
But there it was, overlooking Careel Bay, even lovelier in real life than on the website. Katya, Barry and their cute little pooch called Shui, (short for Feng Shui) were there to greet and welcome us to their home as if we were old friends. It was like stepping into a design magazine. Katya, a landscape architect-designer, potter and yoga and meditation teacher had filled the place, inside and out, with exotic artworks, mirrors and furniture from around the world, and her own exquisite pottery. Feng shui in abundance.
The couple showed us how to operate the technology, shared some insiders' tips to the neighbourhood and then departed, leaving us with nibbles, an excellent bottle of wine . . . and some bird food. It never ceases to astonish me, the warmth, hospitality and trust within the Love Home Swap (LHS) community.
Our stay was managed with Love Home Swap points, a form of currency whereby a member can accrue credits when he or she has another member to stay which they can then 'spend' at LHS properties anywhere in the world, anytime they wish. If a traditional house swap does not suit one or other party, the points system offers the ultimate in flexibility. Love Home Swap membership starts from the equivalent of $20 a month. That's all it costs to gain access to thousands of magnificent homes like this, all round the world. You can sign up for a free two-week trial to see how you like it.
In the days that followed, we celebrated a cluster of significant birthdays, an engagement, a belated Father's Day and just being together, a family of six now that one daughter is married and the other engaged. The three-storey, three-bedroom, three-bathroom home was a dream location for our expanded family. There was plenty of room to spread out in the well-equipped kitchen with its long granite bench and island, adjacent dining area overlooking the bay, elegant lounge with a myriad of artworks and pottery, and sumptuous bedrooms and bathrooms.
The entire frontage of the house was sliding glass panels which opened onto deckings on all three levels so the panorama of palm-fringed Careel Bay and Pittwater Estuary felt like it was part of the house, an ever-changing, living artwork. I loved watching the ebb and flow of the tides and the myriad of activities in the half-moon bay below. At low tide, the golden sands were an idyllic safe haven for children, dog-walkers, yabbie-gatherers, sand castle-builders and frisbee-players.
Walking across the bay at sunset, the ripples on the sand reminded me of the 'corduroy' on freshly-groomed snow. It was odd to think that just a few weeks earlier, I was skiing in zero degrees in Wanaka, New Zealand. Here in New South Wales, the temperature was in the upper 20s.
At high tide, the clear, shallow, dappled water gave the place a tropical island feel and provided a perfect classroom for learner paddle-boarders. Katya and Barry had positioned an ornately-carved Balinese day-bed right on the water's edge, a sublime spot to read and relax and day-dream.
Although tranquil and blissfully quiet, we were only a few minutes' drive from the well-known Boat House restaurant, Palm Beach, aka 'Summer Bay' on the long-running Australian TV series 'Home and Away, and Avalon with its many fine eateries. The Sabiang Thai in Avalon served one of the best Thai meals I've experienced in many years.
To justify our over-indulgence, we did vigorous hikes every day. The Barrenjoey Lighthouse track rewarded us with a fantastic elevated perspective of the narrow peninsula with its surf beach on one side and sheltered Pittwater Estuary on the other, while the waters off Bangalley Headland track treated us to a thrilling display of breaching and tail splashing by a couple of whales, heading south on their annual migration. I was so excited, I had to pulled back from the crumbling cliff.
In the mornings, my feathery friends joined me for breakfast while the household slept. After a while, I gave up attempting to focus on my writing assignments and just communed with the parrots, something I couldn't do in New Zealand. It was a blissful interlude for us all, especially our Sydney-dwelling young ones, away from the hustle-bustle of life in the city. Perhaps the feng shui cast a peaceful aura on us all.