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.
Your best bet is to visit the beautiful beaches, rent a bike or go for a leisurely stroll. Or visit Wild on Waiheke, which includes a brewery, vineyard and cafe. Make sure to get a sampler of the beers, or at least taste several. The choice of food, which comes in large portions, includes gourmet pizza, fish sandwiches and huge hamburgers. On the way out, measure your skill on the archery range.
QUEENSTOWN, A VIEW WORTH WAITING FOR
Next stop Queenstown, way down on the southwest side on the South Island.
No one is in too much of a hurry in New Zealand. We couldn't even check-in until 90 minutes before our flight. We couldn't enter security to get to our gate until an hour before. All they said if you were too early was “Relax.”
We flew Air New Zealand the short 630 miles or so, and when we emerged from the plane, we saw an airport view unlike any other. Helicopters circled overhead, and in the distance sat a beautiful mountain range with clouds rolling off it.
Queenstown has less than 30,000 residents. This is the place where extreme sports were born, including bungee jumping, so you see a lot of young people carrying skis and snowboards. In August, the small town was packed with Kiwis, Australians, Asians and Europeans all set on hitting the peaks and skiing the fresh powder.
We caught the bus for a short ride to The Rees Hotel. We had paid extra to get a lake view, and it was worth it. After the concierge had shown us to our room and explained how everything worked, we went out on the balcony to experience by far the greatest view from a hotel room that I have ever seen. The Rees sits right on Lake Wakatipu, and the imposing Remarkables mountain range towers behind it. Carved out by a glacier, Lake Wakatipu is one of the deepest lakes in New Zealand and the world, reaching a depth of a quarter mile in places.
Queenstown is packed with gourmet restaurants. While not quite as expensive as Sydney and Auckland, most establishments are not cheap. We had great fish, pork and lamb at a variety of places, but the most famous restaurant to check out is Ferbergers. The hamburger joint stays open late, always packed. Expect to wait, and expect to be full when you leave.
SCENIC DAY TRIPS
To truly experience the beauty of Queenstown and the surrounding area, you will need to take some day trips. Check out TripAdvisor.com and see which ones you might be interested in. Air Milford is the top attraction. Basically, you fly on a small plane over the Remarkables mountain range and land at Milford Sound. It is very expensive and there is no certainty that the weather won't cancel your plans.
We signed up for the Dart River Jet Safaris. This was a half-day trip which included a bus ride on one of the most scenic highways in the world, a tour of many of the sites used in the shooting of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a jet boat ride to top things off. While the views and stories from the knowledgeable driver were outstanding, the jet boat ride on the Dart River was anything but — thanks to bad weather.
I'm sure in ideal conditions it's quite pleasant, but speeding around obstacles in a river only inches deep in places, while getting pelted with heavy rain was not my idea of a good time. We saw some beautiful scenery in one of the more secluded areas in the world. But as the driver continued to do one 360-degree turn after another, I was cold, dizzy and ready to get on solid ground.
DOUBTFUL SOUND OF SILENCE
While most tourists head to Milford Sound, we took our Kiwi concierge's advice and made the day trip to Doubtful Sound on the final day before we left. I can't blame many for choosing the more accessible Milford Sound, as we spent many hours on a bus to reach the more remote area. Despite its name, Doubtful Sound is actually not a sound, but a fjord located in Fiordland National Park. A fjord is a long narrow inlet of the sea between steep cliffs formed by glaciers. It took a very long bus ride and a 40-minute ferry ride just to reach the ferry that would take us into the sound.
We were lucky enough to get half an hour or so of sun before the clouds and rain once again moved in, driving most people down inside the boat. On the journey we saw amazing rainbows, waterfalls, bottle-nosed dolphins and even some seals hanging out on some rocks.
In what was easily one of the most remote locations on the planet, the captain of the ferry even turned off the motors and had everyone soak in the sound of true silence for 30 seconds. It was eerily amazing.
And after such a long journey to reach our destination, most people were content to relax with some tea or coffee and to strike up a conversation with those seated nearby. We talked with some Australians. They told us where to visit if we ever made it back to the far south side of the world. We returned the favor, revealing that Los Angeles and New York weren't exactly the most accurate example of what the United States was all about.
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.