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Hawaii and Pacific: Australia | Outback Adventure & Slick City Digs

Oz. That's what Australians call their country. Actually, for Americans it really is a bit like the old Hollywood movie featuring the Wizard and Dorothy -- you travel by air for a long time to get there (though hopefully not in a tornado!), and once you arrive it's full of wonderful people and exotic sights.

There is one difference. In the movie Dorothy was determined to get home ASAP, but after an introduction to this Oz, you might not want to head back quite so quickly. Nobody knows how long Dorothy stayed in that fictional Oz, but 10 days to two weeks is just about right for this one. That allows time to either visit the "Big Three" (Sydney, Great Barrier Reef, and Ayers Rock/Uluru) or to choose a region of the country and really delve into it.

Let's Deal With The Downside First

A lot of people avoid heading Down Under because of the length of the flight and, indeed, it is a long one -- about 14 hours from Los Angeles. But with a meal and a movie (or two!) and a little nap -- say six to eight hours -- the time passes pretty quickly. (If you really can't deal, think about stopping in Hawaii!) Before you know it, you've landed in Sydney. It's midmorning when you arrive, and you have the whole day to explore -- perhaps a city or harbor tour, or a visit to Darling Harbor. If you avoid the temptation to bail for bed that first afternoon, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the lack of jet lag you experience on the rest of your trip.

Now A Lot Of Good News

  • Australia is full of unbelievably friendly folks. If you're one of those people who like to tease, you'll love the Aussies -- they love a joke as much as Americans do. They give as good as they take, too, so don't be offended to be called a "Yank" or have a little fun poked. And it's not unheard of to ask for directions and find yourself with a tour guide. Or to belly up to a bar and find yourself with a free brew.

  • Aussies are very active. They love sports, hanging out on their stunning beaches, hiking (called bushwalking), biking, swimming, sailing, and other activities. And they love it when visitors join them.

  • Beer is served chilled in Australia, and it comes in pints. Yummy.

  • Once you get there, things aren't that expensive. Sydney hotels and meals are comparable to any large city in the U.S. But if you get away from the center of Sydney (which is recommended) you'll find prices are really lower for comparable quality.

  • There are really cool things to buy, too: Australian opals, nicely crafted leather goods (with great prices), and Aboriginal art and artifacts. A lot of folks shop for an Aussie hat (those rugged fedoras with the right or left brim flipped up). And just about everybody buys an Australian boomerang: They run from a few dollars for a simple carved piece of wood to thousands for a work of native art.

  • Americans from both coasts are often surprised at the level of dining sophistication in Australia. There are very upscale eateries, mixing Eurocentric cuisines with spectacular seafood, Asian influences, and home-grown spicing. Don't be afraid to order kangaroo or emu -- they're both good! The first is like beef, the second chicken.

  • Australian wines are world-class. Cordons are dependably good. Shirazes and Merlots have also been grown and blended here for a long time.

  • No matter what they tell you, you don't have to smear globs of Vegamite (the salty brewers-yeast paste Aussies use like jam) on your toast -- a thin layer is all most Australians apply.

Why We'd Go: Eight Features You'll Never Forget

  • Scuba diving and snorkeling: Check out the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, or Ningaloo Reef out west.

  • Jet skiing, parasailing, water-skiing, wind surfing: These are popular on the eastern coast, in resort areas like the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.

  • Whitewater rafting: Try Tasmania, or the Nymboida or Gwydir rivers in New South Wales.

  • Outback experiences: Take a four-wheel trek or a camel ride into this vast desert. The "Ghan" -- a train that runs from Adelaide to Alice Springs -- spends most of the trip in the Outback. Aussies often call the area the "Red Center."

  • Wildlife: Sorry, the road from the airport to the hotel won't be hopping with kangaroos. For them, sign up for a wildlife trek, hit the zoos, or go to Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-lovers paradise, frothing with seals and sea lions, 'roos and wallabees, black swans, and pink lorikeets. Best of all there are great accomodations to rest your weary head after all that wilderness-watching.

  • Aboriginal experience: Sign up for a guided nature walk with a native. These guys have an amazingly open and serene way of seeing the world. You'd do well to eat the bugs if your guide suggests it (yikes!).

  • Farm stays: Get out on a farm or sheep ranch for a taste of life in Australia's heartland. These huge homesteads, located throughout the country, offer visitors a chance to see the Oz version of the Wild West, complete with sheep and cows and cowboys.

Australia In Brief

  • Sydney: Australia's spectacular city by the bay.

  • The Outback: A desert nearly the size of a continent.

  • Great Barrier Reef: You'll be stunned at its size and the variety of wildlife.

  • Ayers Rock/Uluru: The immense rock -- the world's largest -- that shows up in every Australia brochure. Book an Aboriginal tour.

  • South Australia: Wonderful wine country.

  • Kangaroo Island: Wilderness and wildlife off the shores of the city of Adelaide.

  • Tasmania: An island green as Ireland, and just as friendly. (Yes, there are Tasmanian Devils to see -- they're way cuter than the cartoon!)

  • Melbourne: A modern city with "veddy" British flavor.

  • Canberra: The nation's capital, overflowing with history.

  • Gold Coast: 26 miles of beach banked with resorts.

  • Sunshine Coast: a shorter version of the Gold Coast, and more laid back.

Before You Go: Need-To-Know Info

  • For years you had to apply (and pay!) for a visa to get into this paradise. Now you simply ask your travel agent to arrange an ETA, an electronic "visa" which the agent gets by simply filling in a simple form and mailing it electronically. For no fee, this allows you travel for up to three months. It's good for a year after you receive it.

  • The climate tends to be balmy, without extremes, since most cities are on oceans. During the summer (December to March) some areas can be fantastically hot. Be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and rain protection all year long.

  • Money can be exchanged in banks and hotels. A lot of people simply use cash machines, which usually provide the same exchange rate as the bank, and there are fewer lines. But be certain that your cards have been validated for international access.

  • They drive on the left side of the road, and really take offense if you call it the "wrong" side. Look both ways!!

  • Australia is a big country -- about the same size as the continental United States, with eight states and territories. This means you may be taking to the air to travel between major cities. Plan out your itinerary in advance so you'll maximize fun time.

  • More info: www.australia.com; Australia's Northern Territory, which has tons of info about the Northern Territories, home of Ayers Rock/Uluru and Alice Springs; and (800) DOWN-UNDER.

Photo: Tourism Australia

-- Patrick Soran

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