Winter here, but summer there

  • By Glenn Adams Associated Press
  • Friday, November 2, 2007 2:48pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Yes, the ride is long, real long.

That’s the short answer to the first question they ask when you say you’ve been to Australia. It’s about 14 hours from Los Angeles to Brisbane. For me, a few steps up and down the aisle, a few catnaps, a couple of movies. Stretched my legs under the seat now and then, trying not to bother the guy in front.

Is it worth the little discomforts? Bloody right!

When we landed, a new day had just begun — G’day — and the wonders of the land down under lay before us: Watching a stingray glide before my eyes as I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef. Seeing little blue penguins muster at nightfall at the Southern Ocean’s edge for their ritual march to their nests. Black swans. A wallaby springing across an open field. Up above, the Southern Cross. And bungee-jumping in New Zealand.

My wife and I had left a Maine winter behind to complete a long-unfinished mission. Working as editors on an ocean liner 28 years earlier, Betty and I had sailed to five continents, missing Australia. We decided now it was time to go. We worked in a stay in New Zealand in a package arranged by our travel agent. We have never been much for escorted tours, but with so many attractions spread over a vast area, and limited time (two weeks), we opted for a tour with Globus. And we met nice people, locals and tour-mates, along the way — including an Atlanta couple who married at the famed Sydney Opera House (www.sydneyoperahouse.com) with us among the witnesses.

Like other Aussie cities, Sydney is walker-friendly, with tons of shops and closed-street malls. Navigating the excellent public transit system is easy; we took a bus to the famed Bondi (bond-EYE) Beach, a surfing hot spot outside the city. While things aren’t cheap by U.S. standards, deals can be found, like the $8 steak dinner along a canopied sidewalk off the beach. For a beer (a popular local brand is Victoria Bitter) count on spending at least $3.50. Opera house tours run about $28.

For adventure, you’ll pay more, like $150 to scale the Sydney Harbor Bridge arch, using catwalks and ladders while harnessed for safety. (We opted out, but a walkway along the bridge’s highway-level span is free, and still offers a magnificent view. Downtown, you can harness up for Sydney Skywalk (www.skywalk.com.au) a walk on the roof of the Sydney Tower, about 800 feet above the city, well above the bridge’s crest.)

A round-trip ferry ride from the harbor to Manly Beach, where surfers were riding wild waves, set us back about $9. It was worth the fare given the view — including a sailboat race and flotilla of other pleasure craft, not to mention a look at the Sydney Opera House from the water.

At the beach, February’s late-summer water was in the 70s, so the swimming was fine. The sun was strong; don’t forget sunscreen, and consider wearing a T-shirt in the water.

That rule made even more sense in the tropical north in Cairns, a Coral Sea resort town of about 120,000 and jumping-off spot for the 1,300-mile Great Barrier Reef. Catamarans run regularly from the marina to Green Island, where even snorkeling novices can easily see brilliantly colored tropical fish, and with luck, a stingray or two. Tours can be booked to more remote spots along this natural wonder.

In town, canopies cover sidewalks along the main streets, so walking even at midday is pleasant. But an early-morning stroll along Cairns’ seaside promenade and park is a must. A white-sand beach, with lifeguards, has been created along an inlet that’s cut off from the open sea but still offers the feel of an ocean dip.

Beyond the sugar cane plantations spread over the lowlands outside the city, rain forests take over where the Kuranda Range rises. We rode a gondola to the mountaintop for a guided walk in the lush rain forest of towering red penda Kauri pine and maple silkwood trees, supplejack vines and many other varieties. The walk included views of the wild Barron Falls below. A ride by cable car, train or a combination costs about $90.

A north-to-south flight to Melbourne, the cooler and proud capital of the state of Victoria, gave us a sweeping airborne view of the Outback, its orange terrain etched by access roads and dotted by an occasional settlement.

If Cairns is where Australians play, Melbourne is where they work. The metropolis has 3.2 million people — the country’s second-biggest city — and even shopkeepers can’t hide their sense of competition with Sydney, which is the most populous.

Melbourne is a city of tram cars, one of which offers free rides around a perimeter downtown with stops at sites such as Fitzroy Gardens, where Capt. Cook’s cottage has been relocated. The waterfront along the Yarra River is lined with restaurants and shops and, for those so inclined, the grand Crown Casino.

A few extra bucks ($60) gave us an evening look at the city from a 1927-vintage tram car (www.tramrestaurant.com.au) converted with burgundy carpeting and velvet seats into a rolling restaurant. Dinner started with champagne and wine and a choice of entrees. I tried pepper-crusted kangaroo — not bad, but I went heavy on the spicy sauce.

If you’re flying from Australia to New Zealand (less than three hours) and you don’t have a window seat, try to swap for one. Beg if you must. I lucked out. The clear day offered breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains of “The Lord of the Rings” land below as we flew toward Christchurch on the South Island.

The English influence is unmistakable in this tidy, garden-happy city tucked into the island’s east coast. Like Australian cities, it is built for walkers, with pedestrian street-crossing control buttons. Looming majestically over a pedestrian-only square is the city’s centerpiece, Christchurch Cathedral. Inside, lookout balconies offer great views of the city.

No visit is complete without a walk through the Botanical Gardens, whose paths lead walkers along the Avon River. If you want to ride, punting is the answer; you can glide along the river in a flat-bottomed gondola guided by young men outfitted in straw boaters who propel the craft along with long poles, Venice-style. School had just let out as we strolled along, and the paths streamed with young boys in striped jackets carrying cricket bats.

But Queenstown, inland and to the west, is where the action begins. The road trip there is one visual exclamation point after another: Huge “stations” (ranches) in the flatlands lead to rolling highlands, dense forests and finally towering peaks that even in the summer shed their snowmelt into countless cascades spilling down the mountainsides.

Our drive into this small city (about 15,000 year-round residents balloon to several times that during busier seasons) took us past a row of booking agents offering rafting, river surfing, sailing, jet boat riding, paragliding, hang-gliding, canyon hiking, cycling, sky-diving and more.

Up for nude (or semi-nude) bungee jumping? They’ll book you here, the world’s bungee-jumping capital. I chose to leap with clothes on, from a platform 1,300 feet above the city and gleaming Lake Wakapitu. Their advice as I peered to the ledge below: “You don’t need to look where you’re going.”

The step over the edge was worth the price, about $110.

If you’ve gone this far, book a ride to Milford Sound, the glacier-carved fjord about five hours from Queenstown. Tour boats give you breathtaking vistas of tall peaks and close-up looks at sheer rock face and cascades splashing to the inlet.

Moviegoers taken by the scenery in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy can take any of a variety of tours through the spectacular filming locations.

Pat yourself on the back for going to New Zealand. It shaves two hours off the air flight back to Los Angeles.

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