G'day from Australia. Last week, my friend Natalie and I were in Maui, checking out a new hotel. Natalie's birthday was quickly approaching and instead of spending it in Hawaii, which, by the way, would have been a fine choice, I thought it would be extra-special for us to travel to one of my favorite countries and one that she has desperately wanted to visit. That's why we're down under this week. Got time to squeeze in a mini-vacation? Then grab your passport and your spring clothes because we're about to visit the world's most beautiful harbour in Sydney.
Natalie and I had a 5am pick up for our 6:23am flight to Honolulu. The two wake up calls we requested came right on time from our posh Maui hotel but unfortunately, the taxi service did not. The front desk at the Wailea Beach Villas wouldn't open for two more hours. The security guard's kiosk was an eight-minute walk from the front doors of the hotel. When I finally got there, I could only get within 30 feet of it because I didn't have a key for the gate that was corralling me in. The young guard was sleeping on the job and I couldn't get his attention. Finally, a rock did the trick. When he did wake, he was slower than molasses, taking forever to track down the phone number for the taxi company. Not having the phone number myself was a rookie mistake. When the concierge kindly made the reservation, I should have requested the phone number ... and one for a back-up service. TIP: Always have all important phone numbers handy.
Luckily, Tara, one of the hotel staffers agreed to give us a ride, otherwise it was really looking like we were going to miss our flight. Every taxi company I called was either not answering or had cars stationed at the airport, which was a 25-minute drive away. Tara drove like Jimmie Johnson and we arrived in record time: 17 minutes. At 6:03am, there were two people in line at the Hawaiian Airlines check-in counter and having no time to spare, I was about to snap as one of them was making small talk with the sole agent. After five minutes, I cut in front and said to the agent, "I'm sorry, but the self-service kiosk won't check us in because we're so late." She completely understood and said, "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" She hurriedly checked our bags and said, "OK, run."
Sprint to Security
Run is what we did. We might just have been the first people to ever sprint through the Kahuli airport as fast as we did. It's one of the most laid-back airports in the United Sates. Under normal circumstances, missing our flight wouldn't have been devastating, since there was another flight departing an hour later. But because we were connecting to Sydney, we didn't have a moment to spare. The next flight leaving Honolulu for Sydney was 24 hours later. That would have meant that Natalie wouldn't have had an official birthday, as we would be in the air, plus, factor in the 21-hour time change. So it was imperative we made the flight.
Maui to Honolulu
While putting my carry-on luggage through security, I noticed the dreaded SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection) on my ticket. That's the four-letter code that, loosely translated, means: Get ready to have a cavity check done by the TSA. Yup, I got pulled aside for a slow and thorough search. Just what I needed at 6am ... and then some. It was both comforting and disturbing, as our names were being paged for the final boarding call. While being frisked, I yelled over to Natalie to run and save herself, promising to catch up, which I did. Shockingly, we both made it onto the plane at 6:22am, just as the plane door was being shut.
Given the mad rush, I didn't think our luggage was going to make it but thankfully, it somehow did. We made it to Honolulu with almost two hours to spare before our departure to Sydney. I took a deep sigh and breathed in that fresh, clean Hawaiian morning air as we moseyed our way to Terminal 3. I love the Honolulu airport (HNL). It's open-air with lots of places to pass time and is good for people watching Â? especially the Japanese, an interesting culture. Hawaii is so popular with the Japanese that there were five flights leaving for Japan within the next two hours. That, in part, explains why HNL has so many high-end designer stores, I think.
This was my first time flying Jetstar, which is Qantas' discount airline, designed to compete with Virgin Blue (my boy Sir Richard Branson's Australian low-fare carrier). Jetstar began booking flights in 2004 and I just happened to be on Bondi Beach the day they launched their advertising campaign. The check-in line snaked around the corner but we waited just five minutes. Why can't all airlines have an army of agents as well? I inquired about an upgrade and was told that there was space available in their StarClass (first class) but it would cost an extra US$250 per person. Two hundred and fifty dollars for an upgrade on a 10-hour and 20-minute flight? Now that's a deal.
Okay, so when I boarded the A330-200 series plane that was configured 2-3-2, I quickly learned that StarClass is a cross between United Airlines' Economy Plus and First Class on one of United's 737s. The plane held 303 passengers and was sold out in coach but only half full in StarClass. The majority of the flight attendants (FAs) were young, attractive and offered just average service.
Pre-takeoff drinks were standard: champagne, orange juice or water served in plastic glasses. After takeoff, the FAs handed out kits that included a blanket, eye mask, noise reduction headphones (the cheap kind) and a blow-up neck cushion (a first for me). For entertainment, they provided DigiPlayers that had a poor and limited selection of movies and TV shows. The food service was served efficiently but was more no-frills than most domestic airlines' economy class meals. I had a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, served still wrapped in the aluminum foil.
Throughout the flight, snacks were available in the galley and two hours out, a hot lunch was served. Choices were chicken or vegetable lasagna that was also served in the aluminum package. The dessert tray was the only thing that resembled first class. I'm not talking about the presentation but the actual goodies themselves: cheesecake, chocolate cake and fresh fruit. Besides the extra space, what we both appreciated most were the power ports (no adapter needed), which allowed us to use our laptops for the duration of the flight. FYI: There are no outlets in coach and economy passengers have to pay for everything; drinks, food, snacks and DigiPlayers ($12). Overall, the $250 was a good deal.
Airport to the Hotel
Since we traveled over the international dateline, we landed in Sydney the following day at 4:05pm. We cleared immigration and customs in 20 minutes. We hit the ATM for some Australian dollars (at the time of publication, US$1 = A$1.09) and then were off for a 25-minute ride to the city. We made it to our hotel room in just under an hour from touchdown. Now that's impressive. Even more impressive was when Thomas, the bellman at The Four Seasons, took our bags, asked how to spell my last name (J.E.T.), then looked up at me and said, "Your sister is Georgette, right?" I nodded in disbelief. He said, "You're that travel guy, right?" Can you believe that he remembered when my sister and I stayed there three years ago? It's this kind of service that makes The Four Seasons stand out.
Four Seasons Sydney
The Four Seasons Sydney has an ideal location. It's within walking distance to everything but a beach. It sits a block inland from the magnificent Sydney Harbour, providing easy access to Circular Quay, where the ferries and train depart. The Historic Rocks is 100 feet away, the shopping arcades are four blocks away and the world famous Sydney Opera House is just a 10-minute walk; you never, not once, lose sight of it.
The Four Seasons Sydney has 531 rooms, making it the largest Four Seasons hotel in the world. There are 34 floors and our junior suite was on the 30th floor with one of the most incredible views in the world. I could never, ever get sick of looking out at the Sydney Harbour. So much so that, while I usually have to sleep in complete darkness, with a view like that I went to bed with the curtains wide open so I could just lie there staring out at it. This is what is it looked like during the day, evening and night.
It's no wonder the hotel just ranked number four on Travel And Leisure's list of the top 25 hotels in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The rooms are spotless. All come with a bed that's so comfortable, the Four Seasons actually sells the entire bedding collection; just ask at the front desk for details. The marble bathrooms are spacious with a separate shower and tub and both are stocked with swanky L'Occitane toiletries. High-speed Internet is available but it's not wireless so only one laptop can be online at once. And it's expensive at A$25 for 24 hours. I wish they offered it for free as they do shoe shines. I just left my old, worn-down, comfortable shoes hanging on the outside door before I went to sleep. In the morning when I awoke, the transformed shoes were hanging in the same place except they looked like new. In fact, they were packaged so nicely I didn't want to unwrap them.
Other Hotel Perks
Guests can pay extra (the price varies) for use of the concierge floor. Depending on your eating and drinking habits, it might be worth the extra money because it includes a free buffet breakfast that has made-to-order omelets, muffins, pastries, freshly squeezed orange juice, sausage, ham, French toast, potatoes and fruit. In the evening, they provide canapés and an open self-service bar. The service up there was refined and one notch higher than the rest of the hotel, if that's even possible. The hotel has a pool, spa and gym though I didn't use any of them on this trip. Rates begin at A$275. Four Seasons Sydney, 199 George Street; Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia; tel. 02/9238 0000.
How Long to Visit?
Whoever says you need two to three weeks to visit Australia is not up on today's world of jet-set travel. Yes, of course, it would be better to spend an extended period of time here but if you've got limited vacation time, it's better to go than not. Australia is definitely doable in a week. My buddy and mentor Peter Greenberg (have you seen his new book, The Complete Travel Detective Bible? I wrote a few pages of it.) once went to Sydney for 36 hours. Now that's just crazy. But the point is, seven days is not.
Here are some quick facts about Australia.
- You know it's one of the earth's seven continents, right? I hope so. But do you know that it's the only continent to fly one flag? Or that Australia is the largest island in the world?
- Australia is divided into six states (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania) and two territories (Northern Territory and ACT - Australian Capital Territory).
- In terms of landmass, Australia is about the same size as the continental United States. However, it has nowhere near the same number of people. Australia's population is only 21 million, while the United States' is 303 million. The population of the New York metropolitan area alone is almost 19 million. Crazy, huh?
- Most Australians live along the coast, as the conditions in the interior are too harsh. Australia's major cities are as multiethnic as any in the U.S. There are 282 major languages spoken in Australia.
- Of the world's ten most deadly snakes, Australia has all ten. Gulp.
- The literal translation of the word "kangaroo" means "I don't understand you." It's believed that Captain Cook was trying to ask an Aboriginal what the strange, hop-happy creature was.
- Australia has an estimated 40,000,000 kangaroos -- more than when the country was first settled.
With our hotel so strategically located, Natalie and I did a lot of walking. We dropped our bags off in the room and went outside, just as the sun was beginning to set. Even though Australia's seasons are opposite to the northern hemisphere's, it was unseasonably warm for early spring. First, we needed to get some exercise after sitting for 11 hours on the plane so we walked across the Harbour Bridge. We walked across Â? not over. One of the most popular attractions is the Sydney Bridge Climb. I'm afraid of heights and even just walking across with all the other commuters made me a little uneasy. I can't imagine walking over it. Warning: The Bridge Climb takes about three hours, participants have to pass a breathalyzer test (no drunks allowed), reservations are necessary and it costs A$179.
Observation: One major way that Australia has changed since the last time I walked over the bridge is that security is much more visible. There were two security guards on opposite sides of the bridge and lots of security cameras. I assume that this is because of terrorists and not suicide jumpers.
On the other side of the bridge is North Sydney. Just below the bridge is Luna Park, an old, Coney Island-like amusement park. Entrance is free and visitors pay per ride. However, we weren't there to go on rides. We were there to soak up that incredible Sydney skyline. There was a full harvest moon that night, which made the evening that much better. Luna Park's website.
On the other side of the bridge is the town of Kirribilli. When our stomachs just couldn't take it any more, we stopped off at the first decent restaurant. Stir Crazy Thai is small restaurant with tables practically on top of each other. There were a few parties of four waiting to be seated but a lone table for two had our names all over it. The friendly, busy staff seated us immediately. Within minutes, we were eating flavorful cashew nut chicken and spicy green curry. It's a fun, happening place, but it's loud. It's even more popular for takeout but scoring an outside table would have been better than eating inside, especially on a nice warm evening. Stir Crazy Thai, 5/1 Broughton St; Kirribilli, NSA; tel. 02/9922 6620.
If you wake up in the middle of the night like so many international travelers do, don't fight it. Go with it. I've learned to get up and work for a couple of hours, then go back to bed for a few more. I woke up at 4am. I popped on the telly and was shocked to see The Today Show broadcasting live. It must be for all the jet-lagged Americans like me. It was neat to watch it. After Al Roker said, "And here's what's happening in your neck of the woods," they cut to Australia weather maps. That right there makes you snap out of it and realize ... you're in Australia. So I turned the TV off, looked up what time the sun rises and took off to witness that sacred moment.
Sydney Opera House
The temperature dropped drastically; it went from 80 degrees to 59 degrees overnight. But I still wanted to show Natalie the Botanical Gardens and the view from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, just as the sun came up. But unfortunately, the gates to the park don't open until 7am. What a total bummer. This used to be my favorite thing to do in Sydney, as the view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge at this time of day is spectacular. Plus, there would be no tour busses and I would have the place to myself with the exception of a few joggers and savvy flight attendants. Instead, we settled for watching the sunrise from the Opera House, which is still nothing to complain about. Did you know the roof is made of tiles? To catch a performance, here's the link to the website to find out what's playing.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Later in the day, we did take a walk through the Royal Botanical Gardens. It's one of my favorite parks in the world and one of the few that actually encourages visitors to walk on the grass. The highlight is watching the thousands of bats. I'm talking big ol' flying fruit fox bats that are very visible, hanging from the trees during the day and seen flying around at dusk. However, Ms. Natalie did not enjoy this part at all. I didn't know it was possible for someone's hair to stand straight up.
After breakfast and a nap, we went to visit my friends Kristine and Damien who live near Manly Beach. Manly Beach is easily accessible; just take a 30-minute ferry (A$6.40) from Circular Quay. It's not only the fastest option but as a bonus, passengers get a free, scenic boat ride. There are two sides to Manly: the harbor side and the beach side. My favorite (and most everyone else's) is the beach side. To get there from the ferry, just follow the crowd as they walk straight for a quick 10 minutes down The Corso. The Corso has all kinds of shops (including a grocery store), cafes, pubs, restaurants and ice cream parlors.
Will & Toby's
The annual Manly Beach Jazz Festival was taking place, so it was especially crowded. We met up for a quiet lunch with my PR friend Caroline Davidson at Will & Toby's. Will & Toby's is a stylish, casual but expensive restaurant located on Steyne Street overlooking the beach. The menu is modern Italian and I had the green pea gnocchi with red pepper and basil pesto ($25AUD). Will & Toby's, 8 - 13 South Steyne; tel. 02/9977 5944.
On my first visit to Australia in 1995, I visited the Taronga Zoo. I enjoyed it immensely but I really had no desire to go back. But it was Natalie's birthday and this is what she wanted to do, so we went. Taronga Zoo is a 12-minute ferry ride (A$5.25) from Circular Quay; ferries depart at quarter past and quarter to every hour. There's a Sky Safari cable car that operates between the wharf and the top of the zoo. It was a Saturday so naturally the place was, well ... it was a zoo.
Gorillas in the Cage
We started at the top and made our way down the spiraling brick paths, stopping along the way at different exhibits. Our favorites were the kangaroos, giraffes, elephants and red pandas. But it pained me to watch the tigers and gorillas. They just didn't look happy. I felt like the gorillas are so advanced, that the roles could have easily been reversed. Those sad gorillas could very well have been my family members, just walking around naked in a cage with a bunch of gorilla tourists gawking at us saying, "Oh my goodness. Humans look so gorilla-like." It was sad.
The zoo is located in Mosman on 52 acres. The land is worth millions, maybe billions as the views of the Sydney skyline are insane. Natalie's happy birthday was achieved when she was able to get up close and take a picture with a koala at the zoo's Animal Encounter (cost $19.95 AUD). The staff is very friendly. Visitors can't touch the mellow marsupials (they're not actually bears) but if there's no line, they allow extra time to hang out, observe and take pictures with your own camera. The woman collecting tickets told me that the Taronga Zoo gets people from all over the world but their number one clientele are Australians. She said everyone has to at least do it once in their lifetime and I couldn't agree more. I'm actually glad I went a second time. It was a fun couple of hours. Taronga Zoo. Regular admission is A$37 for adults, A$18 for children (4-15 years) and A$23 for students and seniors. Children under four are free.
If you plan on seeing a lot of the tourist attractions, look into getting a Sydney Pass. You can get three-, five- and seven-day passes and they need to be used over any eight calendar day period. Prices begin at A$110 for adults, A$55 for children and it's A$275 for a family pass. They not only include entrance fees to many attractions like the Taronga Zoo but also provide unlimited travel on the Sydney and Bondi Explorer buses and AirportLink train transfers.
No visit to Sydney is complete without seeing Bondi Beach. It's one of the world's most famous beaches, but it can't be reached by ferry, only by taxi or bus. A taxi from the Four Seasons takes 20 minutes and costs $25. Unfortunately, we arrived after sunset, so we weren't able to take a stroll along the beach or the coastal walk to see the spectacular coastline. (The pictures are from my last visit with my dad). But we did go to Icebergs Swim Club and Bar for dinner to celebrate Natalie's birthday. Icebergs attracts a Hollywood-type crowd and we even sat right next to Josh Groban who was on his worldwide tour. It's not the cheapest place in town; appetizers are in the twenty-dollar range and main dishes go for a whopping $45. But both the view and the service are superb and it's the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion or finish off a quick but memorable trip to Sydney. Icebergs Swim Club and Bar, 1 Notts Ave., Bondi NSW 2026; tel. 02/9130 3120.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Australia.com.
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