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Spring is a magical season to visit Australia. The weather is sensational, the cities start celebrating with festivals and events and the flowers and everything else is in bloom. It's also horse-racing season, which means gala parties, social get-togethers and for those who like a bet (or what Australians call a "flutter"), a chance to win big!

Being from Melbourne, I admit that I do have a bias towards the city, especially during the spring. Melbourne comes alive after what Australians call a cold winter (probably around 40 degrees at worst), beginning in early September with Spring Fashion Week (www.thatsmelbourne.com.au) from September 4 to 10, 2006. Then things shift into high sporting gear in late September (September 30, 2006) with the Australian Rules Grand Final (www.afl.com.au) -- the Australian version of the Super Bowl except that it is always held on the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and mere mortals (not just corporate execs) can get tickets. Surrounding the event are parades, award ceremonies, festivities and lots of excuses to get together for drinks and celebrate. Then in October, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (www.melbournefestival.com.au) heats up the cultural scene from October 12 to 28, 2006 and possibly the highlight of the spring -- the Melbourne Cup Horse Racing Carnival (www.vrc.net.au) from October 30 to November 11, 2006 which is the highlight of the social and racing calendar. The biggest day -- a public holiday no less -- the Melbourne Cup is on November 7, 2006.

I guess that I have to make mention of Sydney, which to be honest is equally beautiful and sometimes warmer in spring, making beach-going a standard springtime ritual. Stand out Sydney spring events include Sydney in Bloom (September 20 to 24, 2006), the Manly International Jazz Festival (September 30 to October 2, 2006), the Balmain Sailing Regatta (www.balmainsailingclub.com) (October 29, 2006), and Sculpture by the Sea (www.sculpturebythesea.com) a spectacular free outdoor exhibition located on the stunning coastal route between Bondi and Tamarama beaches (November 2 to 19, 2006).

You're in luck - September to early December is considered shoulder season for air travel to Australia so prices generally are lower than the inflated rates that the handful of airlines that service Australia charge during the peak summer months (mid-December through February).

United Airlines (www.united.com) is currently featuring a summer fare sale (meaning the U.S. summer- not the Australian summer). You must depart from the U.S. by September 21, 2006 -- which is perfect to catch the beginning of the antipodean spring. You are not restricted to weekday departures but you must book by August 4, 2006 and stay at least five days (would you really fly all that way and stay for any less?). I found a fare from Los Angeles to Melbourne for $1,047 including all taxes and fees. New York to Sydney is $1,278 including all taxes and the non-stop San Francisco to Sydney is only $965 including taxes in September.

Qantas (tel. 800/227-4603; www.qantas.com) is still offering its Aussie Airpass for flying from September 22 to December 7, 2006 starting from $1,299 from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Honolulu to what they refer to as Zone 1 cities -- allowing three internal flights once you arrive in Australia. Cities on offer at this price include Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Adelaide. Add $200 for Zone 2 cities including Uluru (Ayers Rock), Cairns, Darwin, Hamilton or Hayman Island and Alice Springs. If you can fly out before September 21, 2006, the price for a Zone 1 AirPass is even lower at $999 or $200 more for Zone 2. You must purchase your Aussie AirPass by September 30, 2006.

Air New Zealand (tel. 800/262-1234; www.airnz.com) has similarly priced low fares to Australia for travel commencing by September 17, 2006. Sample fares include:

  • San Francisco or Los Angeles to Sydney: $707
  • San Francisco or Los Angeles to Melbourne or Brisbane: $813
  • San Francisco or Los Angeles to Cairns: $879

Taxes of approximately $120 are additional. Minimum stay is five days and you'll be pleased to know that in case you really like it in Australia, the maximum stay is 350 days.

Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) has what it calls a "10-day Sydney and Melbourne" package but in reality, because of flying time and crossing the international date line, it is only eight-days on the ground and seven nights' accommodations. The package is priced at $1,829 per person for Monday departures throughout the spring (September 18 and 25; October 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30; and November 6, 13, 20 and 27, 2006). If you depart on September 4 or 11, 2006, the price goes down to $1,599. The package includes airfare from Los Angeles to Sydney, Sydney to Melbourne and Melbourne back to Los Angeles, airline fuel surcharges of up to $180 and seven nights' accommodations (four at the Carlton Crest in Sydney and three at the Batman's Hill on Collins in Melbourne) with breakfast daily. Taxes are additional.

SmarTours (tel. 800/337-7773; www.smartours.com) offers the best of both worlds with a package that includes both Sydney and Tahiti. Save up to $800 off the regular package price if you book by July 31, 2006 for travel on October 25, November 5 or 22, 2006. The package is priced at $1,299 per person based on double occupancy and includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, (add $100 for New York departures), seven nights' accommodations at first class hotels (two at the Radisson Plaza Resort in Tahiti and five at the Wynyard Travelodge Hotel in Sydney), full buffet American breakfast daily, Sydney orientation tour and transfers in Sydney and Tahiti.

ATS Tours (tel. 888/781-5170; www.atstours.com) has the lowest price deal we could find at the moment. Their package from Los Angeles to Sydney is priced from $999 per person and includes round-trip economy class airfare from Los Angeles to Sydney and five nights' accommodations at newly refurbished Leisure Inn Park Regis. A similar package to Melbourne is priced from $1,099 per person with five nights' accommodations at the Mercure Welcome Hotel, Melbourne. Valid for travel from now until September 21, 2006. Prices available for other dates. Add-on fares available from other cities such as New York, add $300 or Chicago, add $260. U.S./foreign taxes/fees of approximately $209 to $265 are additional.

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