After years of yearning to make the trip Down Under, my brother and I ventured south past the equator and to the other side of the world in August. We had lost our father in July, so the timing was impeccable; nothing quite like 8,600 miles of distance to change your perspective.
Once you get to look around, you will discover an unfortunate truth: Nothing is cheap in Sydney. Choosing to take a taxi to your hotel could run you $55 to $75 U.S. The train from the airport to the city costs about $16 U.S.
I chose to stay at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney's Central Business District. The location was ideal — in the middle of everything and close to the St. James train station. Although we showed up well before the designated time for check-in, the staff at the Sheraton did all they could to accommodate us after the grueling journey. The Sheraton on the Park sits right across Elizabeth Street from Hyde Park, a beautiful sprawling green space with impressive fountains, trees and birds. We paid extra to get a room overlooking the park and requested a higher floor.
FIRST STOPS IN AUSTRALIA
But we didn't travel all the way to Australia to stay in the hotel. One thing immediately comes to mind when you think of Sydney — the world-famous opera house. Tours of the performance center and some of its 1,000 rooms and 300 corridors are available, but you can also settle for taking a picture in front of the architectural masterpiece.
Sydney Harbour Bridge sits just to the northwest of the opera house and offers visitors the chance to climb to the top for what I'm certain is an amazing view. It is not, however, very convenient and requires a decent amount of time and money. We passed on the climb. While the winter days were mostly pleasant, clouds were prevalent and discouraged going to great lengths in pursuit of pictures. When night falls, however, clouds are irrelevant, as one of the most breathtaking harbors in the world begins to glow.
One way to take in the beauty of the harbor — day or night — would be via a ferry ride, preferably to Manly Bay. The ferry leaves several times an hour and only takes around 30 minutes. Take advantage of sitting outside, weather permitting, for the unfettered view of the opera house, the bridge and the city.
After soaking in the beauty at Manly Beach and nearby Shelly Beach, we grabbed a bite to eat at Manly Grill, a restaurant with outdoor seating, situated no more than 100 yards from the ocean. I decided to pass on the chargrilled kangaroo fillet topped with crocodile tail. Instead, we went with the local fish — barramundi. It was very fresh and quite good.
One thing to keep in mind when traveling Down Under is that tipping is not prevalent. Probably because things are so expensive, no one has any money left. When my brother paid the bill, he left a healthy enough tip that the waitress actually came back and thought he had made a mistake.
Other places you might want to check out while in Sydney include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Darling Harbour and the Sydney Tower Eye and Skywalk. The first two have no admission fee.
ARRIVING IN NEW ZEALAND
After three good days in Australia's largest city, we headed back to the airport and caught our Virgin Australia flight to Auckland, New Zealand. Between a 1½-hour delay, a three-hour flight and losing two hours in the time zone change (New Zealand is 17 hours ahead of Oklahoma City), the short flight basically swallowed the entire day.
Flying into Auckland, try to get a window seat, because you'll see scenery like no place else in the world. Unfortunately, that was one of the high points of our stop in New Zealand's most-populated city of 1.5 million people. Winter is the rainy season on the North Island of New Zealand, and we got our fill during our 2½ days there. Another problem is that Auckland is a victim of circumstance, so trying to show up Sydney is no easy task. Auckland's Sky Tower is a bit taller than the Sydney Tower Eye, and is actually a casino. It is also the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, so the Kiwis get the checkmark there. But if you visit Auckland, be prepared to look beyond the city.
We stayed at The Langham hotel, located in Auckland's Central Business District, but not that close to anything in particular for a tourist. The Langham offered a convenient shuttle to the waterfront and shopping district.
Queen Street is really the epicenter of the city. It's a street packed with restaurants and shops offering just about everything you could imagine.
There are many things to shop for in New Zealand. You'll see jade jewelry and figures everywhere. That's because the South Island of New Zealand is one of the only places in the world where jade is mined. Other things that are purely Kiwi are fine wool and puau shell. Items made with the brilliant rainbow shell are just about everywhere, and the price is more moderate.
New Zealand has a fascinating problem with possum. It's one of those ecological disasters where someone brings over an animal to get rid of a certain pest, but then the animal they brought has no natural predators and takes over the country. So, since they were going to kill the little varmints anyway, the Kiwis found a great use for possum fur: Mix it with merino wool. The result is one of the lightest and warmest fabrics created anywhere. Knit caps and gloves are reasonably priced, while sweaters and lambskin jackets are more expensive.
Like Sydney, everything is expensive in Auckland — except the ferries. The highlight of our stay on the North Island was a visit to Waiheke Island — second largest of 47 islands sitting in the Hauraki Gulf and in close reach of the city. The boat ride takes only 30 minutes or so. Once you've reached the beautiful island, jump aboard a bus for a general tour, or for a tour of the island's numerous vineyards. Over 8,500 people live on the small island, and another 3,500 or so have vacation homes. A few thousand commute to Auckland everyday. The island is densely populated and property is at a premium. The ultrawealthy live in mansions atop hills, overlooking green trees, golden sand and deep blue water.
It will take you almost 24 hours to travel from Oklahoma City to Australia and/or New Zealand, but upon arrival, you'll quickly forget the time and expense required. Since my brother lives in Houston, I drove down on a Saturday, leaving plenty of time for a Sunday evening departure. A four-hour flight west was followed by a three-hour layover, so even by California standards, it was late in the night when we left San Francisco for Sydney. We departed a bit after 9:30 p.m. CST (11:30 p.m. California time) on Sunday and arrived in Australia at 7 a.m. Tuesday. It almost makes sense when you add the 14-hour flight and the 17-hour time difference.