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HometravelExploring Australia: Up on a cable-car roof amid mountains, oyster feast and...

Exploring Australia: Up on a cable-car roof amid mountains, oyster feast and good times everywhere

SYDNEY – Australia is always new for travel lovers. That becomes thrillingly real when I stand on the roof of a cable car, high above the eucalyptus forest below.

Safely harnessed, I admire the 360-degree vistas of endless mountains. Super-fine mist swirls up from the valley floor 270m below.

This is an all-new perspective of the Blue Mountains, a beloved escape for Sydneysiders. The ride, a global first, debuted just as Australia opened its borders to vaccinated visitors on Feb 21.

To spend a week in Sydney and the nearby Blue Mountains and Central Coast is to feel renewed after a long bout of stay-home pandemic blues.

The new and the novel abound in the eastern state of New South Wales: entering a cool zero-waste bar in an emergent Sydney enclave; savouring the freshest oysters at an in-water table on the coast; and draping my legs over the rim of twilight-tinged mountains.

As the world navigates concurrent crises such as Omicron, the Ukraine war and climate change, I also remember the timely wisdom of an Aboriginal Australian I meet on a rainforest trek. He respects crises as part of the circle of destruction and renewal.

1. Blue Mountains: On a high

Beyond Skyway is the ultimate cable-car ride where guests like me, heart pounding, ascend the rooftop of an idling gondola.

This is the latest attraction within Scenic World where I whiz up and down the world’s steepest railway and stroll among treetops on elevated walkways, among other high-altitude quests.

When Scenic World closes for the day, rooftop adventurers are fitted with custom-designed full-body harnesses. We take breathalyser tests too.

Up to four guests get into the cable car, which trundles a couple of minutes from the station and parks in the middle of Jamison Valley. Up on the roof, nothing – not even glass – impedes the inspiring view and time slows down.

Like us, our wine glasses are tethered. I sip a non-alcoholic pineapple-citrus blend topped with a pomegranate swirl.

“The world is opening up and people want new experiences,” says Mr Peter Schefe, our rooftop guide.

During the pandemic, everything stopped for a season in New South Wales, the most populous state. Even state borders closed.

The Scenic World team – passionate about the environment and having fun – had time for reinvention. Its new ride encapsulates this spirit. “It sells itself,” Mr Schefe reckons.

Elsewhere in the Blue Mountains, a 90-minute drive from Sydney in our driver-guide Michael Gan’s van, photojournalist Gin Tay and I seek lookout points for perfect shots.

The mountains really look bluish to us. Oil droplets emitted by the vast eucalyptus forests combine with dust and water vapour, creating an illusion of blue haze.

Echo Point, near Katoomba town, is an ideal corner to view the Three Sisters pinnacles. Alternative Aboriginal legends surround this dramatic rock formation. The popular version is a sad romance – three young women fell in forbidden love with men from another tribe and were turned into a trio of peaks.

Lincoln’s Rock, near another mountain town Wentworth Falls, also mesmerises. For the ‘Gram, people sit on a rock ledge that appears to be the edge of a cliff, though it is safer than it looks.

Sitting on the rim and gazing at the wilderness, I imagine that the open frontiers here silently echo our new freedom to travel in 2022. Australia, the world’s only continent-country, does that to you.

2. Central coast: In-water oyster feast and stories

We move from the mountains to the coast, where we savour oysters at an in-water table.

Wearing waders that look like hip-high boots crossed with workman overalls, I follow third-generation oyster farmer Sheridan Beaumont onto a tiny jetty and we step into the sea.

I am perfectly dry in my waders when I stand at the table and start my oyster-shucking lesson. Twist the tip of a small shucking knife into the bivalve, wiggle and separate the hinge between the shells.

Make sure the oyster’s curved side holding its natural briny liquor is cupped in your hand, so none of it drips away.

As I speed-write these steps, I remember my glacial pace of shucking. Thankfully, Ms Beaumont and her mate are pros and soon there is a luscious mound of Sydney Rock Oysters, which I dip into elderflower-laced vinaigrette – her family recipe.

She describes the flavour: “Creamy and metallic with an ocean liquor.”

This novice agrees and we clink wine glasses.

I also learn that the Hawkesbury River, which runs from the base of the Blue Mountains to the sea, is so big that oysters farmed in each zone are uniquely flavoured, much like how terroir shapes the taste of wine grapes.

Indeed, she compares sweet-salty oysters cultivated in brinier water to a subtle Merlot. Oysters grown in sea-grass terrain may have vegetal, earthy nuances that remind her of full-flavoured Shiraz.

This Immerse Yourself package costs A$195 (S$196) a person and includes a boat ride to the oyster leases for a guided tour.

A variation, the Oyster Elegance experience, costs $295 a person and the highlight is a champagne seafood lunch. She adds the lunch to our itinerary – grilled barramundi paired with spinach-walnut-feta salad, more oysters and a bottle of bubbly.

On our private beach that hugs a sheltered bay – the ocean in front of us and the bush behind – we have fleeting moments to relish our idyllic white-tablecloth lunch.

A storm is brewing and we must return to shore. On the rollicking boat ride back, Ms Beaumont spies her father heading out to move oyster trays out of harm’s way. “It’s dangerous,” she worries. Daughterly love prompts her to jump ship and join him.

As she exits, I think about how wild and magnificent Australia is, and how the young woman has persevered through many vagaries of farming.

For more than 15 years, Ms Beaumont, a mother of four and a chiropractor who is studying to be a medical doctor, has grown and supplied oysters to the Sydney Fish Market. The city is a breezy 45-minute drive away.

More recently, to diversify, she started Sydney Oyster Farm Tours at Mooney Mooney on the Hawkesbury River.

Encountering people and places that inspire and endear is a significant joy of travel. That day – and our return to Australia as the pandemic endgame hopefully speeds up – is all of that.

3. Sydney: Indoor zoo, vivid city

Australia abounds in nature’s gifts – from beaches to wildlife – even in cities like Sydney.

We plan to take a coastal walk and cap it with lunch at the beachside-chic North Bondi Fish restaurant. But rain is forecast for Sydney.

From experience, the best plans can unspool in a flash. So we have pre-planned rainy-day options and decide on an intimate indoor zoo that displays Australia’s Big Five: the koala, kangaroo, crocodile, wombat and platypus.

At Wild Life Sydney Zoo, a huge part of the appeal lies in how the keepers chat with visitors and convey the wonders of wildlife.

As we reach the koala enclosures, seven pairs of unblinking eyes follow us. These furballs are like curious toddlers – wide-eyed with strangers, food snatchers, ever ready for bedtime.

Koalas may sleep 20 hours a day, but we catch them at their playful best.

Head keeper Marina Betrus says her koalas have distinct personalities. “Scarlet is the boss. She pushes other koalas out of the way to eat or sleep.”

On cue, high-energy Scarlet turfs another koala off her tree perch.

The bears have a choice of 10 to 15 eucalyptus species for meals, instead of five or so in the wild. “They have room service every day,” Ms Betrus quips.

A 4m saltwater crocodile fascinates me. Rocky’s favourite dish is “very expensive barramundi”. Chicken is too fat for him.

He loves the massage from an underwater pipe in his habitat where the water is a tropical 30 deg C.

Crocs are intelligent, Ms Betrus says. “They can navigate back to their territory when they are rehomed.” One croc took nine months to do that, navigating by the stars to get home to the Northern Territory from Queensland.

I look at Rocky with new respect and wonder if he will one day hotfoot it to Queensland, where he was found on a beach.

She adds: “Back in the day, movies portrayed crocodiles as scary and angry. But, yes, they like having a spa bath too.”

With such stories, the zoo builds connections between animals and humans.

I also love the tiny sugar glider, Candy, that sips nectar from a syringe. Its fur is like gossamer when touched. A miniature aviator, the palm-size possum can glide half the length of a soccer field.

That morning, I also encounter the ever-nibbling platypus, green budgies that flit in flocks, snakes that cuddle one another.

The zoo is a window into Sydney. So is a water-taxi ride from a Darling Harbour wharf to Manly, which is hyperlocal, with scenes of Australians playing beach volleyball or lingering at cafes.

On our urban voyage, the boatman cues us to ready our cameras, and we capture twin icons – the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – in a single theatrical frame.

All classics can be experienced anew, as a return to Australia reveals.

Australia: new again

The rain is incessant during our journey in late February and early March. Soon after we fly home, Australia’s eastern floods are declared a national emergency, though the floods have generally cleared now.

The Sydney of my imagination is gloriously sunny. Weather data shows that it enjoys 300 days of visible sunshine if we include partly cloudy days.

Yet the weather cannot fully cloud the appeal of New South Wales, or most destinations, when we nimbly rework plans to discover the land. Moreover, flexibility is key in a pandemic.

I also think about how Australia abounds with culinary pleasures, cool hotels, secret vistas and a flurry of fun travel experiences created during the two pandemic years – all making Australia new for globetrotters again.

This story is brought to you by Tourism Australia.


Exploring Australia: Marvels of the hidden Aboriginal world

BLUE MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA – The Aboriginal world is hidden, even to many Australians. But it is experiencing a renaissance.

In the Blue Mountains, we uncover the secrets of nature and pick up ancient wisdom while trekking to sacred places and waterfalls.

Our senses are filled as we nibble bush food, inhale forest scents and touch native flora during the award-winning Aboriginal Blue Mountains Walkabout. This expedition is a fresh facet of a week-long journey to Sydney and its nearby Blue Mountains and Central Coast.

“Feel as much as you can,” indigenous guide Evan Yanna Muru encourages our group.

I chew a strand of mat rush, a tufted herb. It is bland, like most bush food (also known as “bush tucker”) that is foraged for sustenance.

The lemon-scented teatree, with its intensely citrusy fragrance, is good as a fly repellent, antiseptic or deodorant.

The flamboyant Banksia Flower, which drips nectar and looks like a hairbrush, is used in dance ceremonies. We also see plants that are deployed as prebiotic, soap and toilet paper. The forest comes alive with Mr Muru’s hyperlocal commentary.

These trails are not always benign. Leeches are pernicious and it is challenging to navigate the sides of waterfalls.

Mr Muru has prioritised safety from the start. “Walk like a penguin, take small steps,” he instructs. “Feel the ground. Put your foot down softly, like walking bare-footed, and you will not trip even when you’re not looking.”

I tread lightly and he is right. I am steadier and slip less on the rain-slicked paths. Approvingly, he says I can take his walking tips anywhere. “You’ll be a ‘head up’ walker and get extra enjoyment from life.”

He also shows sacred places, and shares the Dreamtime stories and beliefs held dear by the Aboriginal people. We learn about the life-giving Rainbow Serpent and hand stencils in caves, for instance.

He talks about how after initiation rites, a new song spirit danced up in his life and he is now a prolific songwriter – mostly Beatle-esque pop-rock but also metal, the whole gamut.

I want to know how the Aboriginal ancestors would view crises like the global pandemic. “Without crises, there’s no learning. There’s no life,” he begins, and philosophises about the wheel of destruction and renewal in life.

Among my fellow walkers is Ms Claire Jay, 30, who works in bushfire prevention in nearby Mount Victoria, in the Blue Mountains. The Australian has a keen interest in Aboriginal culture.

“The Aboriginal culture of Australia is certainly hidden even to Australian residents,” she says. “I’d love for people to know more about it, but I also know the culture is quite secretive and would want to be sure people are going to treat it with respect.”

The good news is that Aboriginal heritage is enjoying a revival.

The Barangaroo Reserve, part of a new landmark waterfront in Sydney, honours the under-the-radar Aboriginal story of this world-class city.

Amid the picnic spots, pretty coves, walking and cycling trails and scenic lookouts of the waterfront, travellers can seek out Aboriginal culture tours.

My guide, Mr Timothy Gray, who is a Gumbaynggirr/Wiradjuri/Bidjigal man, shows us a hive of the Sugarbag native stingless bees.

He brings out an array of implements, including a boomerang used mainly to hunt wild birds like geese and a fishing spear he made after learning from an elder and fashioning it with power tools.

Most Aboriginal cultural activities ceased during the pandemic. But this is a big restart year and classes are being planned, such as boomerang-throwing and hut-making.

Along the way, he points out the golden wattle, the national flower and a symbol of unity.

The Aboriginal people produced a toffee-like snack from the gum and made weapons from the wood, among multiple uses for the flowering plant.

Colonial settlers cultivated the golden wattle – the bark was used in the tanning industry and the blossom for honey.

It is a poignant symbol, given the fraught history of indigenous and colonial Australians.

Barangaroo itself is named after an Aboriginal woman who fought for the people and the land in the early days of European colonialism, according to accounts dating to 1790.

“She’s like our first revolutionary and resistance warrior, unwavering in her culture and ways,” Mr Gray says. “The other history of Australia is alive and well here even though this is a big city.”

Moreover, the indigenous ideals of living sustainably and caring for the land are ever more relevant now. “Climate change is the biggest threat for Mother Earth.”

Experiences inspired by the Aboriginal life can be found elsewhere in Australia. Here is another one to try: Scale the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with an indigenous storyteller as a guide.

The three-hour Burrawa climb is an immersion into Aboriginal Australian stories and landmarks across the harbour.

It was launched by BridgeClimb Sydney in January last year, about two decades after tens of thousands of Australians walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of reconciliation.


Exploring Australia: Zero-waste bar and fresh culinary pleasures

SYDNEY – RE- is a zero-waste bar that mixes imperfect ingredients for perfect cocktails. The decor uses recycled milk cartons for tabletops, charcoal from bushfires for a graphic and an array of salvaged objects.

Yet no one at the unpretentious game-changing bar talks up the eco-credentials, preferring that guests almost chance upon zero-waste ideals while having a good time.

RE- Bar opened in February 2021 in a repurposed locomotive workshop within Eveleigh, an eclectic Sydney enclave.

What a flawless choice of location that mirrors the bar’s green ethos, I think as I step inside.

I choose the Saint Peter from the menu – it seems a little mad for someone to devise a drink with Murray Cod fat, white rum, mango, coconut, osmanthus flower, katsuoboshi (a spirit crafted from bonito flakes) and “ocean honey”, which turns out to be seaweed and honey.

Why fish fat? Bartender Matt Dale says: “Murray Cod fat is mixed with white rum overnight for a special texture – a layer of oiliness which is lovely.”

No hint of fishy murk in my vibrant drink. I find out later that the fish fat is a by-product from inventive fish-centric eatery Saint Peter, which also experiments with it for caramel.

The ingredients in other RE- drinks include food that is routinely tossed – the rind from pecorino cheese, spent beer grains and surplus whole fruit from Sydney Markets, a group of wholesale and retail markets.

Founder Matt Whiley, an award-winning English bartender, is clear that the bar need not hard-sell the zero-waste movement, even if the ambitious goal is to cut food waste in venues by 80 per cent.

“If you’re a guest, we give you the menu, which is printed on recycled coffee cups. You can see the materials are a little different from conventional bars, which sometimes leads guests to ask questions.”

He reasons: “Going to a bar is about having fun. You don’t really want a lesson. But some people love it when they find out that we use pineapple fibre and mushrooms in the design.”

And so he is inspired by the imperfect, the wilted and the rejected, and believes change can happen – venue by venue and drinker by drinker.

My RE- bar visit is a fresh facet of a week-long journey to Sydney and its nearby Blue Mountains and Central Coast, where I discover other new and novel restaurants and bars.

1. Imaginative seafood set

Lana, Sydney

Chic Lana, lodged in an old wool store and sensuously designed, serves zero-waste Mediterranean-inspired seafood and season-driven dishes.

The set menu is good value at A$79 (S$80) for 10 gorgeously plated dishes. Our dinner includes a petite charred leek tart and ink tortelli doused in a supreme coral-prawn broth.

I love the pair of sweet-salty desserts, especially the caramelised pineapple layered with miso ice cream and topped with sculptural yuba or beancurd skin.

Info: Lana’s website

2. Sultry Sicilian bar

Apollonia, Sydney

A subterranean bar set in an imagined Sicilian bandits’ den, Apollonia is old-world romantic escapism with a modern spirit. Think luxe mixed-marble bartop and theatrical dripping candles with a signature scent.

Lots of negronis on its menu, and also cool twists on Italian cocktails.

My choice is Baciami, which Google translates as Kiss Me. It is a scarlet concoction of un-aged tequila, beetroot grenadine, rose water, fresh lemon and wattleseed, a traditional Aboriginal Australian staple. There is a sweet delicacy, with an underlying robustness like many drinks here.

Info: Apollonia’s website

3. Australian breakfast restaurant

Bills Double Bay, Sydney

The restaurant exudes the sunny Australian spirit and is popular for breakfast.

I go for its signature ricotta hotcakes served with banana and honeycomb butter – lots of fluffy goodness. The toasted rye is both rich and piquant with avocado, poached egg, lime, chilli and coriander.

It is a casual-chic crowd here, lingering over great coffee. Sydney likes to contend with Melbourne as Australia’s coffee capital. Restaurant bills has outposts elsewhere in Sydney and overseas.

Info: Bills Double Bay’s website

4. Cakes and coffee for the ‘gram

The Grounds Of Alexandria Cafe, Sydney

The vibrant cafe is embedded in urban sanctuary The Grounds Of Alexandria, an Instagrammer’s delight with flowery alleys and immersive restaurants.

I get a deconstructed mocha. Pour a thimble of espresso into a chocolate-glazed glass and add frothy milk for a bespoke mocha. It pairs perfectly with The Secret Garden cake – an almond sponge with apple custard, covered with honey buttercream and dainty pressed flowers.

Walk around. Peer at the luscious cakes in retro cases or pop into the kitchen garden.

Info: The Grounds’ website

5. Playful cocktails

Dean & Nancy On 22, Sydney

As we head to our table for pre-dinner drinks, the aura is beguiling with a twilight sky, soaring windows and a celebratory vibe.

I get a Rosella, a cocktail of Absolut Vodka, honey, rock melon, gentian and, wait, an aromatic bubble. Along comes the hostess, gleefully shooting a giant bubble from a “gun” to top my drink. Kiss it, she says. The bubble bursts and everyone around me cheers.

It is easy to forget the pandemic in this skyline bar, which may have the most playful cocktails in town.

Info: Dean & Nancy on 22’s website

6. Hyperlocal savvy

Blaq, Blackheath (Blue Mountains)

Let local shine – that is the principle here. Blaq showcases hyperlocal produce, starting with drinks that use native botanicals and locally sourced spirits and liquors.

My Mountain Mary is a twist on the classic Bloody Mary, with a double shot of Karu Chipotle Vodka, smoked tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, celery, olive and pickle.

We experiment with charred cucumber and also order a proper steak, a 450g Rangers Valley bistecca, guided by the personable staff. Just the place to chill after a mountain trek.

Info: Blaq’s website

7. High tea, dreamy mountains

The Wintergarden at Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath (Blue Mountains)

It is nostalgic, enjoying the grand tradition of high tea in Wintergarden within a heritage-listed hotel. The restaurant is plush and, from its clifftop perch, the Blue Mountains are dreamy.

It is also multicultural, like many places in Australia. One of the high-tea choices is Eastern, with Vietnamese rice rolls and finger sandwiches filled with curried egg.

Scones are a must, naturally. Sip a flute of Australian sparkling wine and step back in time.

Info: The Wintergarden’s website

8. Chocolate cathedral

Josophan’s Fine Chocolates, Leura (Blue Mountains)

The chocolate boutique, which recently moved into a small repurposed church, has everything from vegan chocs to a table of Rocky Road.

From its ganache showcase, I pick a piece of dark chocolate with a fresh raspberry centre and edible ruby-like shimmer, then a dark chocolate ganache infused with fresh mint leaves and orange.

There are Easter eggs galore ahead of the season and even a fun “fried-egg” variation. Most eye-catching is a corset of chocolate – owner Jodie van der Velden has created such corsets for charity, including for breast cancer awareness.

Info: Josophan’s website


Exploring Australia: Pandemic travel tips

While life in Sydney and the region is almost back to normal, pandemic travel will still require extra planning, paperwork and patience. That said, it is a seamless experience. Here is how to ensure a smooth journey to the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW).

Before flying to NSW

Get your vaccination certificate digitally authenticated by logging onto the Notarise portal. Download a copy to your mobile phone or print it.
Show proof, such as a doctor’s letter, that you have taken either a medically supervised antigen rapid test (ART) within 24 hours of your flight or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within 72 hours of the flight.
Singapore Airlines has a useful webpage that lists current testing requirements for destinations on the vaccinated travel lane list. Go to this website

Each Australian state has different testing and travel requirements, and rules can change. For NSW, get updated information here.

Submit the Digital Passenger Declaration form online within 72 hours of your flight to Australia. Go to this website. Requirements include the flight number, travel history (14 days before the flight) and Covid-19 vaccination record or acceptable evidence that you cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and a negative Covid-19 test result.
Show proof that you have obtained a visa. You can easily apply for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) to travel to Australia. Go to this website. This service will cost A$20 (S$20). Once successful, the ETA is automatically linked to your passport.

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When in NSW

During my trip from late February to early March, I was required to take an unsupervised ART on my arrival day and isolate in my hotel room until my test showed a negative result.
On Day 6, I took a professionally administered ART at Histopath, which has a test centre at Sydney International Airport. I booked my test online at this website. The test cost A$59 and the result was e-mailed in about 30 minutes.
Submit your Singapore health declaration online before you fly home. Go to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority website.
Refer to the Safe Travel Concierge by Changi Airport Group for a checklist of requirements for entry into Singapore.

Back in Singapore

Travellers on the vaccinated travel lane arrangement and low-risk areas can now take unsupervised ART tests within 24 hours of their arrival in Singapore. This new rule took effect on March 15.

Australian restrictions now eased

Australia welcomed fully vaccinated international travellers on Feb 21, after two years of strict Covid-19 policies.

In NSW, restrictions were eased on the day I arrived on Feb 25, with masks required mainly for airports, hospitals, aged-care homes and public transport.

QR check-ins are required only for nightclubs, strip clubs and music festivals with more than 1,000 people. Singing and dancing are permitted at all venues.

However, I noticed that many service staff at eateries were still masked. Australians are generally compliant with Covid-19 restrictions and law-abiding. Photojournalist Gin Tay and I felt at home and were often told we were among the first international visitors to return.

Vaccination rates are high. According to the NSW government, 94.5 per cent of the people aged 16 and above have taken two doses.

For Covid-19 information in NSW, go to its Ministry of Health website.


Where to stay

Many new hotels have sprung up, including:

Kimpton Margot Sydney

The new luxury hotel was once the premises of the Sydney Water Head Office, a 1939 Art Deco complex with striking Scagliola pillars.

The marbly pink pillars glam up the lobby, which has also kept the 1930s romantic aura. “Heritage with a modern edge” sums it up.

Whimsical wall art adorn guest rooms and I love the personal touches – a couple of limes on a tiny board, ready to zest my glass of water after a flight.

Chill at the 5pm Social Hour with complimentary drinks that vary daily and may star boutique Australian wines. Borrow a Lekker bicycle to explore the city.

Chef Luke Mangan’s modern Australian restaurant, Luke’s Kitchen, is in the lobby. I relish creamy kingfish dressed with tender purple shiso, dashi, miso and Nashi pear. It is Japan on a plate with Australian verve.

Info: Kimpton Margot’s website

Kyah Boutique Hotel

Nestled in the Blue Mountains is a Palm Springs-inspired hotel that also hints at Old Hollywood glamour.

A fresh-air retreat, it sits in bohemian mountain village Blackheath. Dotted with cool cafes, Blackheath is also a bushwalking base.

Originally a no-frills motel, Kyah now has stylishly decked-out rooms. Mine is furnished in an autumnal palette of olive and rust.

The in-house restaurant is the hyperlocal garden-to-plate Blaq (a stylised abbreviation of Blackheath) helmed by cool young chef Mate Herceg.

Info: Kyah’s website

A By Adina Sydney

The lobby sits high up in the new 22-storey architecturally forward hotel that somehow induces deep calm, but also exudes indulgence.

I love the two-bedroom double-bathroom suite, with a kitchenette and designer amenities, that I share with my colleague. The Sydney skyline and the light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows are energising for a work trip.

It feels like a hip sky villa, with dynamically changing scenes of Sydney far below.

Dean & Nancy On 22, where we have breakfast and, later, playful cocktails, is perfect for lingering at any hour.

Info: A By Adina’s website

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