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Trip Report Australia Trip Report (Sydney, Cairns, Hamilton Island) 2012

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August - September 2012
August 18 (Saturday): Newark to San Francisco to Sydney

My spouse and I flew United from Newark, NJ (EWR) to Sydney (SYD) via San Francisco (SFO). We both have premium silver status, and we were able to secure exit row/bulkhead seats in premium economy, seats 21D/21E. (It is what we like to call "business class for poor people"!) The drawbacks to our seats are immovable armrests, and no underseat storage during takeoff and landing. (You can retrieve your carryon and keep it by your seat during the flight, however. It is not possible to fly from the East Coast of the United States to Sydney nonstop, so we transited through San Francisco.

We departed Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) on United Airlines flight UA492, departing Newark (EWR) at 1:18 pm, arriving in San Francisco (SFO) at 4:23 pm. We flew a Boeing 757-200, and we had a 6 hour: 22 minute layover in San Francisco, which passed surprisingly quickly. (Little did we know that some people who boarded our Sydney flight had also come from Newark, allowing themselves only a 45-minute connection time; fortunately, the Sydney flight waited for those passengers. Had we known, we could have cut down our travel time significantly.) We spent our time during our San Francisco layover with a nice meal (for an airport) at Yankee Pier and drinks at Andale Mexican Restaurant.

We departed San Francisco International Airport (SFO) at 10:45 pm, arriving at Sydney International Airport (SYD) at 6:25 am 2 DAYS LATER (a day was lost crossing the International Date Line). Our flight time was 14 hours: 41 minutes on a Boeing 747-800 in seats 33H/33J (exit row/bulkhead/premium economy).

August 20 (Monday): Sydney to Hamilton Island

At Sydney International Airport (SYD), immigration and passport control went smoothly. We were questioned about whether we were bringing in any food. We admitted to carrying sealed granola bars, which were not a problem. One thing to note if you are a smoker: although when we entered Australia, the duty allowance for cigarettes was generous (200 cigarettes/10 packs), we saw signs stating that no more than 50 cigarettes (equivalent to 2.5 packs) could be brought in duty free after September 1, 2012. Another change that began on November 1, 2012 is the institution of the SmartGate system, whereby American passport holders with Global Entry can “fast pass” through passport control.

We had approximately 4.5 hours between our international flight and our domestic flight to Hamilton Island. First, we needed to transfer from the international terminal (T1) to the domestic terminal (T2). We had two options: either the ground-surface bus or the underground train. The T-Bus between T1 and T2 costs approximately $5 one-way per person and takes approximately 10 minutes. During busy times, it runs continuously, but only every 30 minutes during off-peak hours (hours of operation are 6:00 am to 9:00 pm). The Airport Link (underground) costs $5 one-way per person and takes only 2 minutes. The Airport Link train runs daily between 5:00 am and 12:00 midnight. You can also take a taxi for about $10 total one-way. We decided to use the shuttle bus, so we first converted some money from US dollars to Australian dollars. We purchased tickets on the airport bus itself.

We were not able to check our luggage with Jetstar Airways until three hours prior to the flight, so we had a little time to waste. When we checked in, the agent told us that our baggage was way over the allowable limit, and also that because we had not pre-paid for it, the fee would be greater. WARNING: Jetstar Airways institutes an automatic on-line check-in for you 48 hours before your flight, before which time you must retrieve your record and indicate the number of bags that you plan to check. Unfortunately, we were unaware of this automatic check-in process (the default must be to sign you up for it, because we do not remember intentionally doing so); in addition, we were in the air 48 hours prior because we were travelling from the United States (perhaps that is why they “help you”?) When we tried to check our bags, we were told that we owed more than $400 total for two medium-size suitcases! That amount was more than the amount we paid for the plane tickets themselves (two one-way tickets were $400)! We explained our plight to the agent, who advised us to wear whatever we could and shift around some other items so that we each carried on two small bags. In this way, we were able to check our bags for about $140 total (which was only $60 more than it would have cost us if we had specified our number of bags and pre-paid on-line ahead of time), which seemed like a bargain after our initial quote! A crisis was averted and a lesson learned, but thinking that we had a huge bill to pay was a terrible welcome to Australia!

Economy starter fares are allowed one main piece of cabin baggage plus one small item (combined, the two pieces should not exceed 22 pounds, but no one was weighing the carryons). Checked baggage must not exceed 70 pounds, BUT ONLY IF YOU PRE-PAY FOR THE LUGGAGE EARLIER THAN 48 HOURS PRIOR TO YOUR FLIGHT. If you do not pre-pay for your bags, then the limit decreases to 50 pounds, with each pound over charged something outrageous like $25 per pound (or so it was explained to us).

We departed the Sydney Airport (SYD) Domestic Terminal T2 on Jetstar Airways flight 846 at 11:50 am, arriving on Hamilton Island (HTI) at 2:20 pm. Our flight time was 2 hours: 30 minutes on an Airbus A320 in Seats 7D/7F (aisle/window), which we had selected ahead of time for an additional fee of $4 per person/per seat.

We arrived at the Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island (HTI) on time. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy and cool, and it did not improve much over our four days on the island. We were met at baggage claim by a representative from our hotel, the Hamilton Island Beach Club, who directed us to board a waiting Audi sedan, telling us that he would fetch our luggage and deliver it using a follow-up car. Our female driver made the quick 10-minute drive from the airport to the Beach Club, stopping once at an overlook where we could see the main street in “town” and giving us a few brief details about the island. It may have been our imaginations, but most of the female hotel representatives seemed to have a haughty/pretentious attitude.

After checking in at the Beach Club hotel, we walked to town. It is a quick, safe, 15-minute walk on sidewalks, although you have to climb one somewhat steep hill. (Please see my separate review on the Hamilton Island Beach Club.) In town, we picked up a few non-alcoholic beverages from the General Store, some alcoholic beverages from the Bottle Shop, and ate a casual dinner at the Manta Ray Cafe on their deck (no smoking allowed). Manta Ray has both indoor and outdoor seating (both on a deck overlooking the water, and in a tented structure with open sides. The menu is casual, with things like gourmet pizzas and pastas that cost in the $20 range per entree/main. (They have pizza takeaway in the afternoon/evening and pizza delivery in the evening.) We spent about $100 total on dinner at Manta Ray with one shared appetizer, two entrees, and two rounds of drinks.

When we reserved our room, unbeknownst to us, we would be on the island during the 2012 Audi Race Week. Being on Hamilton Island during Race Week turned out to be a good thing, because there were activities occurring and the mood was festive. (But we must say, if that is the busiest the island gets, it must be extremely quiet at other times of the year.) Although we enjoyed our few days of rest and relaxation, the island has a very manufactured Disney-esque feel, probably because all the hotels, restaurants, and shops are owned by the group/company that manages the island. While prices for food and drinks are high because there is no competition and all goods must be brought in from the mainland, we did not think the prices were much higher than we experienced later in our trip in Cairns and Sydney. One thing that Hamilton Island did that the other cities did not was to add a credit card surcharge to every purchase that we made. We believe it is Australian law to add a 1.5% surcharge to hotel bills, but because all restaurants and shops are owned by the hotel company, they can add an additional charge to every single purchase that you make, even if it is not officially for lodging. Even when we did not charge expenses to our room, they still tacked on the fee when they posted the transaction to our credit card. (Our credit card company does not charge a fee for international transactions, so the surcharges were definitely added by Hamilton Island.)

August 21 (Tuesday): Hamilton Island Koala Bears

We spent our morning free time investigating the island. We bought lunch at the Marina Deli, which had better-than-average sandwiches and wraps. Unfortunately, because it was Race Week, the Marina Tavern was not serving food, so we could only have a quick drink there. In the afternoon, we went to WILDLIFE Hamilton Island for a private koala tour. (Please see my separate review of WILDLIFE Hamilton Island.)

We were scheduled to have a seafood dinner at Mariners, but we were not excited about the menu choices and their accompanying prices (entrees/main courses are about $38 each), so we went back to Manta Ray Cafe for dinner.

ACTIVITY REVIEW:
WILDLIFE Hamilton Island - Pleasant Way to Spend an Hour or Two
WILDLIFE Hamilton Island (previously called Hamilton Island Wildlife Park/Sanctuary) was one of the two main reasons that my spouse and I visited Hamilton Island in late August 2012. Besides snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, the fact that we could book a private koala tour and be able to hold koala bears was another big draw for us to Hamilton Island. You can only hold or “cuddle” a koala bear in Queensland (Brisbane, Cairns, and the surrounding areas); you cannot hold bears in New South Wales (NSW), which means that you cannot hold a bear in the Sydney area. Even in Queensland, there are strict rules for holding koala bears: the bears can only “work” for a certain number of days per week, they can only be handled for a certain number of hours per day, only certain bears can be used (not mothers with joeys, for example).

Our 1-hour private koala tour was scheduled for 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm at a cost of $80 per person, which included unlimited admission to the wildlife park for the duration of our stay on Hamilton Island, as well as a souvenir photo of us holding a koala bear. (General admission is $20 per person, with unlimited entry for the duration of your stay on the island.) Although we reserved our tour via e-mail prior to leaving the United States, we were able to pay by credit card on arrival at the park, and WILDLIFE Hamilton Island appeared to be the only establishment on the entire island that was not owned by the hotel company; therefore, they did not add an additional 1.5% surcharge to the total bill.

We went to the park early so that we could participate in the Park Keeper Morning Tour from 10:00 am to 11:00 am, in which a zookeeper walks around and explains various marsupials (such as a wombat, dingoes, bettongs, and pademelons). We were able to feed the kangaroos (through a fence), pet the dingoes (they were outside of their cage on leashes), and pet (but not hold) a koala bear. The park has a Park Keeper Afternoon Tour from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm (which we did not attend) that focuses on reptiles and birds (like the parrot, cassowary, and blue-tongued lizard).

The park has a gift shop as well as a small cafe near the entrance that offers breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Some admission packages include meals and photos with koalas and other animals. You can also just enter the cafe area at designated times to have your photo taken holding a koala without having to pay the park entry fee (you still pay for the photo, though). Our photos were not ready on the spot, however; we had to return the next day to pick up our photographs. (The photo studio was overly busy with work during Audi Race Week; perhaps during a normal week, the photos are ready sooner.) The park is small, but it provides a good way to spend an hour or even two hours, if you read all the informative signs posted at the enclosures.

We were happy to have taken a private tour at this small but well-organized wildlife park. Being able to spend one hour of time holding, petting, and feeding various koala bears is an experience that cannot be duplicated at too many other locations.

August 22 (Wednesday): Hamilton Island Great Barrier Reef (ReefWorld)
We reserved a trip to ReefWorld on-line and via e-mail a few weeks prior to our arrival on Hamilton Island. We opted to take the helicopter out to the pontoon and the ferry back to Hamilton Island. Our itinerary consisted of a 30-minute helicopter flight, 2.5 hours at ReefWorld, and a 2.5-hour ferry ride back to Hamilton Island. (Please see my separate review of ReefWorld.)

We ate dinner at Romanos, which served decent Italian food at approximately $30 per entree/main course. Service was not great. We had one menu item that was unique - zucchini blossoms. Our table was not ready when we arrived, and we were asked to sit in the lounge area and enjoy some drinks (at our own cost, of course!). The restaurant has both indoor and semi-outdoor seating, on a deck overlooking the water but enclosed with a canopy. There are also a few lounge/bar seats in the lobby and in the actual bar area itself. We spent about $120 total on dinner at Romanos for one shared appetizer/starter, two mains/entrees, and two rounds of drinks.

ACTIVITY REVIEW: ReefWorld - Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef
My spouse and I travelled to ReefWorld in late August 2012. We reserved our excursion on-line and via e-mail a few weeks prior to our arrival on Hamilton Island. We opted to take the helicopter out to the pontoon and the ferry back to Hamilton Island. Our total package was about $400 per person. If you take the ferry both ways, it reduces your total cost, and if you take the helicopter both ways, it raises it.

The day dawned gray, foggy, and misty, and we feared our trip would be cancelled, or worse yet, that our trip would go as scheduled but that we would not be able to see a thing, neither on the helicopter flight nor beneath the water. There is no cancellation penalty if you can cancel within 24 hours of departure, but we were well beyond that time. The front desk attendant at the Beach Club assured us that the flight would go, and he also assured us that the visibility beneath the ocean surface would be good once we got out to the reef. He even pulled up an underwater camera at the ReefWorld site to persuade us by showing the current conditions.

Our itinerary consisted of a 30-minute helicopter flight, 2.5 hours at ReefWorld, and a 2.5-hour ferry ride back to Hamilton Island. Our 2.5 hours at ReefWorld passed quickly. The water was cold, but clear, and we wore heavyweight stinger suits (wet suits) to keep warm while we snorkeled. Besides snorkeling, we also used the underwater viewing chamber on the pontoon, but we did not have time to take a ride on the semi-submersible because the timing was inconvenient. During our safety briefing and introduction upon arrival at ReefWorld (which was given to just the two of us), despite being told that there would be announcements made regarding the departure of the submersible, we never heard any messages on the loudspeaker. (If you travel to ReefWorld by ferry, the briefing is given to all passengers simultaneously on the ferry ride. We think the ferry passengers are also given the opportunity to sign up for helicopter rides or other optional activities like massages and scuba diving or scuba instruction at that time.

We enjoyed the helicopter ride. Hamilton Island Air picked us up at our hotel and drove us by van to the airport. On the 10-minute drive, we were asked to watch a short video about the helicopter flight that we would be taking, including safety information. We were driven in a van with a family of four; it was not clear to us until we arrived at the airport that the plan was to place us into two different helicopters. We had read that some helicopters could hold multiple passengers, with some passengers receiving middle positions on the bench seating (and thus, not being able to see out the windows clearly, especially to take photographs). But we were placed into our own helicopter, which held just four passengers. One of us sat in the front with the pilot, and the other sat on the back seat. We did not take off from the commercial airport; instead, we departed from the private airport next door. The lobby area of the private terminal was attractive and comfortable. We met our pilot and were outfitted with a life-vest type thing that we wore in a packet on a belt around our waist. Once inside the helicopter, we were each given a headset so that we could communicate with the pilot and with each other. After the pilot completed his pre-flight checks, we took off. The first few minutes yielded views of Hamilton Island and its coastline, followed by a several-minute view of clear blue water. When we neared Whitehaven Beach and the Barrier Reef itself, the view was stunning and spectacular! We landed on a small floating pontoon near the larger stationary ReefWorld pontoon, and a small launch was sent to meet us. (It was a stand-up kind of ferry without any seats, but instead with railings that you could hold on to.) The launch that came to meet us held ferry passengers who had signed up for a helicopter ride. We were very glad that we took the helicopter from Hamilton Island, even though it was more expensive than taking a flight from the pontoon. We felt that the scenery on the 30-minute ride was much more varied and interesting than what the pontoon passengers saw (although that is just a guess; perhaps they saw amazing scenery as well).

Our ReefWorld package included a buffet lunch, which looked attractive and was tasty. We had low expectations for the food, so we were pleasantly surprised by the variety and presentation. Lunch is served on the ferry, not on the pontoon, and all supplies are brought in (obviously!) from the mainland. (The ferry originates in Airlie Beach, then stops at Hamilton island, then finally sails to ReefWorld.) For us, the timing of lunch was a bit inconvenient; we wished that we could have spent that time snorkeling or doing other activities instead of “wasting” our precious time eating before they put the food away. To us, it would be more efficient to feed passengers on the ferry ride home, although that might use valuable passenger seating space to lay out the buffet.

The pontoon holds an overabundance of snorkeling equipment available for guests to use, including masks, fins, scuba equipment, lightweight stinger suits, and heavyweight stinger suits. Equipment is available in all sizes - we are not small people, but we had no trouble finding the appropriate suits and fins. There are changing rooms on the pontoon, although you must use the bathrooms on the ferry. The pontoon is quite large, easily absorbing the crowd from the ferry. The top deck contains lounge chairs where you can rest and relax; however, it seemed like the people who disembarked the ferry first claimed the chairs, reserving them even though they spent most of their time in the water or eating lunch on the ferry. As departure time neared, they opened a waterslide from the pontoon into the ocean. A loud horn was blown and announcements made when it was time to depart. Some people stayed behind to spend the night on the pontoon in one of the two rooms. While it seemed very solitary and peaceful out there, which might appeal to people who really love the water, it would not have suited us personally, so we were glad to board the ferry back to the island.

An underwater photographer is available to take photos of you while you snorkel. He puts together a DVD of all the pictures, which he sells on the ferry ride home. He runs a slideshow on the ferry ride back to the island/mainland, so you can see what you are purchasing before you buy.

On the day that we visited ReefWorld, one of the passengers was handicapped, and the staff did a great job to make sure that the gentleman had every opportunity to interact with the fish. Someone tried to carry him down to the underwater viewing chamber, but it seemed to be impossible. Instead, they hoisted him down to the diving platform attached to the pontoon and sat him with his legs dangling in the water. Then they brought out the fish food, and the fish came and fed around his legs and ankles. To us, it looked like he was having a great time, and it provided other visitors with a great opportunity to take pictures nearby.

The ferry ride home was smooth, but we took motion sickness pill as a precaution because of reviews that we read about the rough ride (it was calm on the day that we traveled). Shortly after departing ReefWorld, we spied a mother whale and her calf, and then we saw the mother whale breaching. It happened SO quickly that there was very little time to snap a quick photo. Snacks were provided on the ferry; we cannot say what the morning snacks were, but in the afternoon, chips and salsa and two kinds of cake were provided. Drinks (including alcohol) are available for purchase. There is a small outside area on the ferry, but most of the seating is indoors. The bottom floor contains traditional ferry seating, with groups of chairs separated by tables. The second floor contains lounge-type seating, without any tables.

Although this was a pricey day trip/excursion, we felt that we could not visit Australia without snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, and being able to fly over it one way to view if from the air was spectacular. So it was money well-spent!

August 23 (Thursday): Hamilton Island Rest Day

We did not have any firm plans for our last full day on Hamilton Island. One of our potential activities was to take a trip to Whitehaven Beach, but after flying over it in the helicopter and seeing how populated it was with day trippers (although incredibly beautiful), we decided to save our money and just relax and enjoy the beach and pool at the Beach Club; unfortunately, the weather was not ideal beach weather. Instead, we took the Audi driving course. We had a free invitation from the Beach Club, but it seemed like anyone could participate; you just needed to provide your drivers license, and it did not matter if it was a foreign license. Despite the small scope of the driving course, it featured varied terrain, and we thought it was a bit thrilling if you drove at a good speed. Afterwards, we took the free bus around island, stopping to snap some photos at One Tree Hill. We made it to the overlook just as the sailing regatta passed and the clouds parted, and the scene was just spectacular.

We had lunch at Sails at the Resort Center, overlooking the Dolphin Pool and Catseye Beach. You order and pay at a counter, then they deliver the food to you. There is both indoor and outdoor seating at Sails. We spent $55 total for lunch at Sails, including two entrees and two rounds of drinks.

The pool at the Resort Center is large and attractive, with a lazy river-type portion and a small bridge over one area. There is an activities desk at the Resort Center, as well as a bowling alley, shops, pool tables, games, and so on. The property seemed very underutilized, except on “Lay Day”, when the yachting people were all on land and not competing in races. A new restaurant, Coca Chu, is located at Resort Center near the Dolphin Pool on the ocean side. We did not know the existence of this restaurant before our arrival on the island, thus we did not pre-book/reserve a table, and despite calling several times (and asking the desk agents at the Beach Club to call), we were unable to attain a reservation. But the restaurant looked very hip and chic and the Asian-influenced menu sounded terrific.

We planned to go to Bommies for a celebratory last-night-on-the-island dinner, but when we investigated it (and the Yacht Club) out earlier in the week, we realized how fancy and formal it seemed. Not having terrific results with the service and food that we had tried on the island thus far, it seemed a stretch that we would enjoy dinner there for what it would cost (appetizers/starters were about $30 each, with entrees/mains about $50 each). Instead, we opted for dinner at the Steakhouse, which turned out to be one of our better meals on Hamilton Island. It is an odd kind of format, though - you walk through a line, sort of cafeteria-style, to place your order and pay, but then they deliver your food to you. We spent about $110 total on dinner at the Steakhouse for one shared appetizer/starter, two entrees/mains, and two rounds of drinks.

The Long Pavilion and Pebble Beach restaurants are reserved for guests of Qualia only. We had e-mailed the food and beverage manager there to see whether we might be permitted to dine, but we were rejected because it was Race Week. Other reviewers on-line seem to have been able to dine there by making an e-mail request, so perhaps it was just bad timing that caused our bad luck. Qualia is very well-hidden on the island - we could not even take a quick peek to check out the luxurious property.

August 24 (Friday): Hamilton Island to Cairns

We tried to check in for our QantasLink flight on-line the evening prior to our flight, but we were unable to do so. We arrived at the airport just as the check-in desk opened, and we quickly checked our bags (there was no fee to check bags) and were assigned seats. As guests at the Beach Club, we were able to use the executive lounge at the Great Barrier Reef Airport (HTI), although it was nothing more than a comfortable oasis in which to sit. (It looks like they might offer drinks and snacks at some times of the day, but not when we were there.) The club has private restrooms. The regular departures area had plenty of seating, albeit crowded, along with one shop and one counter service cafe.

Our QantasLink flight QF2504 departed Hamilton Island (HTI) at 9:55 am, and arrived in Cairns (CNS) at 11:20 am. The flight time was 1 hour: 25 minutes on a tiny DeHavilland Dash 8. (The plane is small; you cannot carry on even a small rollaboard.) The seating was 2-2, but the flight was not full, so we were able to spread out a bit. When we arrived at the Cairns Airport, we hailed a cab to our hotel, the Hilton. (Please see my separate review of the Hilton Cairns.)

After checking in at our hotel, the Hilton Cairns, we walked around Cairns in the afternoon, having a snack and drinks at Rattle n Hum (which has both indoor and outdoor seating and seems to specialize in gourmet pizzas). We walked around town again at night, because the Cairns Festival was going on, so there were things like fire-eaters and carnival tents and a general atmosphere of joviality on the Esplanade and near the pool. (We thought that the pool was attractive, spacious, with good facilities and excellent hours.) We had dessert at the Coffee Club. People that we spoke to on Hamilton Island basically said that they felt sorry for us that we were leaving such a beautiful location (Hamilton Island) to stay somewhere not-so-nice (Cairns). But we did not feel that way at all! True, there is no beach in Cairns, but we loved the casual vibe of the city; it is somewhat of a backpacker town, but also a town where families enjoy their vacation time.

August 25 (Saturday): Trip to Cairns/Kuranda

We took the Kuranda Scenic Railway (Gold Class) from Cairns Railway Station to Kuranda village. (Please see my separate review of the Kuranda Scenic Railway.)

We had about two hours to explore Kuranda village, the Original Markets, the Heritage Markets, and Kuranda Foodworks (supermarket). We opted not to visit any of the main attractions (such as BirdWorld, Bat Reach, Venom Zoo, Butterfly Sanctuary, or Koala Gardens); however, the recommendation is to allow 30 minutes for each attraction. We were not enthralled with Kuranda - in the end, two hours was too much time for us. We had been fed so well on the train that we were not hungry for lunch, so we enjoyed two rounds of drinks at Kuranda Rainforest View Restaurant for about $22 total. (The restaurant, despite its name, does not boast fantastic views!) For us, the train to and the Skyrail from Kuranda were the focus of the day, not walking around in Kuranda itself.

We took the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway ride back down to the Cavonica Terminal. (Please see my separate review of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.)

After we arrived in Cavonica, we walked next door to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. (Please see my separate reviews of the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.) After the Tjapukai show, we walked back to the Skyrail Cavonica Terminal to board our (group) shuttle bus transfer back to the Hilton Cairns.

August 26 (Sunday): Cape Tribulation Tour

We booked a Private Premium Cape Tribulation Tour with Trek North Safaris. (Please see my separate reviews of the Trek North Safaris.) We visited Port Douglas, Palm Cove, Mossman Gorge, the Daintree Cruise Centre, Daintree River, Cape Tribulation Beach, and Cape Tribulation Botanical Garden. We were picked up at the Hilton around 7:00 am, and we returned at approximately 5:00 pm. We ate a light dinner in the club lounge at the Hilton.

ACTIVITY REVIEW: Trek North Safaris - Private Day Trip to Cape Tribulation
My spouse and I took at trip to the Cape Tribulation area with Trek North Safaris in late August 2012. We booked a Private Premium Cape Tribulation Tour via e-mail before leaving home. (Even on a group tour, the maximum group size for Trek North) is nine people, which is still relatively small.) The cost for our full-day private tour was about $300 per person. We paid our bill upon booking via credit card using their secure on-line payment system.

We were picked up at the Cairns Hilton around 7:00 am, and we returned at approximately 5:00 pm. We first headed to Port Douglas and Palm Cove, then visited Mossman Gorge, where we took a 40-minute walk on the boardwalk. Next, we stopped at the Daintree Cruise Centre for morning tea, and we then boarded a 1.5-hour river wilderness cruise in search of salt water crocodiles. There are various entomology specimens, including butterflies, on site at the Cruise Centre. After our cruise, we crossed the Daintree River by the historic cable barge and continued by car towards Cape Tribulation.

Lunch was included in our tour. The on-line itinerary said that lunch would be cooked by our driver in a riverside setting, where we could swim afterwards; however, we asked to substitute lunch in a local restaurant instead. Contrary to what we read on-line, our driver said that he never cooks lunch for customers; they always go to a restaurant. He said he tries to choose a different restaurant every time, and we ended up at a restaurant called Lync-Haven, even though we had specified other restaurant choices (such as Whet, Treehouse, or Julaymba) in our contact e-mail. Lync-Haven has both indoor and outdoor seating, as well as many display cages containing different reptiles (mostly snakes) and birds. The driver expected us to pay for his lunch, and the restaurant seemed pricey for where we were (our lunch bill totaled $72, with only one round of non-alcoholic drinks)! Normally, we offer to pay for our driver’s meal, and sometimes they accept and other times they do not. Not only did the Trek North Guide accept, but he ordered the most expensive item on the menu! While we (the guests) ate sandwiches, our guide ordered a fish entree accompanied by a side dish, citing some health issues that he had for needing to order that type of better-quality food. He was a native of Argentina, and we had to listen carefully to understand him, because we had recently travelled to Argentina and Brazil, our ears were tuned to his accent, but it could prove problematic to other guests.

After lunch, we walked on Cape Tribulation Beach (1 hour), then we took the Cape Tribulation Botanical Guided Walk through the mangrove ecosystem for 1.5 hours. The driver offered to stop at a local ice cream shop for an afternoon break, but we declined. On the way back to Cairns, just outside the city limits, we stopped at a field that was teeming with kangaroos, which was probably our favorite part of the day. Despite looking all day for cassowaries, we never saw one cassowary on our journey. (We loved the funny “before” and “after” cassowary signs, though.)

Our day was enjoyable, although we did not feel like we saw any particularly unique scenery that we could not have seen in the United States.

August 27 (Monday): Cairns Free Day

We did not have an solid plans for this day. We considered a whale watch, but the better companies went out of Port Jervis, several hours south, so we ruled that out, and we felt that we had our fill of snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, we walked around Cairns, spent some time at the Hilton pool, and visited the casino and the shopping mall. We had happy hour drinks at La Pizza Trattoria (two rounds of drinks for about $15 total). We ate dinner at the club lounge at the Hilton.

August 28 (Tuesday): Cairns to Sydney

We hailed a cab to the airport from the Hilton Cairns to travel to the airport. Because of the good location of the hotel in the city, cabs are always nearby to take you where you need to go. Although the Cairns Airport is small, it is nicely outfitted with a few shops and restaurants. Smoking is allowed outside in an enclosed courtyard area (inside of security), and there are also picnic benches/tables there if you want to eat outside.

Our Jetstar (via Qantas codeshare) flight JQ955 departed Cairns (CNS) at 10:25 am, arriving in Sydney (SYD) at 1:15 pm. The flight time was 2 hours: 50 minutes on an Airbus A321. We had no problems checking our bags, and we did not have to pay an additional baggage fees. (Clearly, the problem that we had earlier in the week with our Jetstar flight operating on Jetstar equipment did not translate to a Jetstar flight operating on Qantas equipment.

We arrived on time at the Sydney Airport, and hailed a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Hilton. (Please see my separate review on the Hilton Sydney.) Taxi fares are expensive - it cost about $50 total (including tolls) to travel from the Sydney Airport to the Hilton Sydney.

After checking in to the Hilton, we walked to the Sydney Harbor to acclimate ourselves and to determine where our restaurant for the evening (Quay) was located. For lunch, we enjoyed two rounds of drinks and a small pizza at Rossini at the Quay for $40 total. (Please see my separate review of Quay.)

August 29 (Wednesday): Sydney Opera House and Sailing

A few weeks prior to leaving home, we booked a tour of the Sydney Opera House using their on-line reservation system. Tours last one hour. (Please see my separate review of Sydney Opera House.)

We had underestimated the time it would take us to travel from the Opera House in Sydney Harbor to the King Street Wharf in Darling Harbor. (Actually, before arriving in Sydney, we assumed that it was all the SAME harbour! Now we know that the city is made up of many beautiful harbors and wharves, which is what makes the city so unique and charming.) We knew that we did not have enough time to walk, and we were not sure if we could make it by cab because of how crowded the streets were during weekday lunchtime traffic. So we jumped on a water taxi, which took us there quickly, passing by the Opera House, under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, past Luna Park, and other sites - what a fantastic photo opportunity!

Next, we participated in the America’s Cup Match Racing Experience with Sailing Sydney. (Please see my separate review of Sailing Sydney). In the evening, we ate dinner at Tetsuya’s. (Please see my separate review of Tetsuya’s.)

ACTIVITY REVIEW: Sailing Sydney - Highly Recommend This Exciting Activity!
My spouse and I participated in an America’s Cup Match Racing Experience with a company called Sailing Sydney in late August 2012. Every Wednesday, for three hours and $169 per person, an Australian America’s Cup yacht competes in a sailboat race against other yachts (large and small) in the Sydney Harbour. On other days of the week, you can take a 2.5-hour sail for $129 per person. Because we booked and pre-paid ahead of time on-line, we received a promotional rate of $129 per person for the Match Racing Experience. This tour operates only with a minimum number of guests (a certain number is needed to work all the equipment), so reserving ahead of time is essential if you want to ensure that the boat will sail. Even though we reserved well in advance, we still did not know for certain until the morning of our sail that enough people had signed up and that we would indeed race. (The endless waiting, despite much e-mail communication) is our only criticism of the activity.

When you arrive at Wharf 9 on the King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour, do not expect to see a storefront or kiosk owned by the sailing company. You must wait for the yacht to dock to truly check in. There is a sign standing on the sidewalk near the harbor, adjacent to the Cargo Bar and just north of the Sydney Aquarium, for the yacht.

The excursion begins at 1:00 pm and lasts until 4:00 pm. You sail out of Darling Harbour, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and past the Opera House, which are all great opportunities to take some photographs before the race gets underway and you start working the boat. You sail past Manly and Watson’s Bay before turning around, circling a lighthouse, and heading back to Darling Harbour.

The passengers help the crew of four to work the sailboat in the race, tacking, grinding, trimming the sails, and so on. You can do as much or as little work as you would like, and no previous sailing experience is necessary.

Never having been on a sailboat before, we found it to be quite an adrenaline rush and exhilarating, because most of the time the yacht is tipped on its side and you are standing on the deck at a 45-degree angle. We highly recommend this exciting activity!

August 30 (Thursday): Blue Mountains

Before leaving home, we arranged a day trip to the Blue Mountains with a company called Country Trails. (Please see my separate review of Country Trails Private Tours.)

ACTIVITY REVIEW: Country Trails Private Tours - The Owner Is a Great Guide
My spouse and I took a day trip to the Blue Mountains with Country Trails in late August 2012. We booked our private tour a few weeks prior to our arrival via e-mail. The owner of the company, Glenn Kinsville, was our guide. Glenn is extremely responsive and timely in his e-mail communications, and he offered us much helpful advice. We paid a total of $400, plus we paid for our own admission fees to attractions ($48 total) and our meals. We paid a deposit of 50% upon booking using our credit card on the company’s secure website, with the balance charged automatically to our credit card one week before our tour.

Glenn picked us up at 7:30 am at the Sydney Hilton. We were each asked to sign a waiver/contract in the van before we got on our way. (This was a first for us, but shows that Glenn takes his job, his company, and everyone’s safety very seriously.) Glenn has a nice Mercedes multi-passenger van, and he clearly takes pride in his vehicle and his business. On one stop that we made at the Three Sisters, he bought a book in the gift shop to add to the informative collection in his van that passengers can read about the area en route to various locations. He also showed us a game that he created on his iPad that matched Australian animals with their names and sounds; the game will keep children busy for awhile!

En route to the Blue Mountains, we made one short break at a rest stop/welcome area to use the bathroom facilities; the gift shop sold some interesting items and a limited selection of cold drinks. Our first stop was the Kings Tableland viewpoint, where we admired the view of the Jamison Valley at what seemed to be the most windy spot on earth!

Next, we stopped at the Echo Point/Three Sisters lookout, where we had about 15 minutes of free time (although we could have had as much as we wanted, really) to enjoy the scenery and to browse in the tiny mall (with shops and restaurants). Afterwards, we traveled to Scenic World in Katoomba, where we bought a combination ticket ($40 total) with four components: first we took the incline train down the mountain, then we walked along the boardwalk. Next we took the gondola up the mountain, and lastly we took a cable car across the gorge.

We ate lunch at Silks Brasserie in Leura for about $100 total. Originally, the on-line itinerary mentioned lunch at the Megalong Valley Tearooms, but we had read good things about Silks and asked to go there instead. Our meal was very good, as was the service. Leura is a tiny, cute town with several shops and restaurants.

We enjoyed our day in the Blue Mountains. Glenn is a conscientious and knowledgeable tour guide, and we highly recommend his services!

August 31 (Friday): Sydney

We spent some of the day walking around Sydney, We had hoped to travel to Manly on the ferry, but the times were not convenient for us. Instead, we bought two tickets on the hop-on/hop-off (ho-ho) bus, taking a tour around the city and out to Bondi Beach. We ate lunch on the water at Buckets/The Pavillion, which has both indoor and outdoor seating. Our lunch with one shared entree and two rounds of drinks was a little overpriced at $36 total, although the view was excellent! Service was not great, which is surprising since you order and pay at the bar and they bring you your food. We ordered two entrees, but only one ever arrived, and we were only ever charged for one. The second entree order was never placed from the bar to the kitchen. The narration on our bus came over a loudspeaker, but we saw people on other buses using headphones (perhaps the headphones were close-captioning for non-English speakers?). The red, double-decker buses provide outdoor seating on the top level, and enclosed seating on the ground level. Tickets cost about $40 per person, and entitled you to 24 hours worth of travel. We began at 12:00 noon on Friday, and we could travel until 12:00 noon on Saturday.

In the evening, we attended a performance of the musical South Pacific at the Sydney Opera House. We had a light dinner beforehand at the club lounge at the Hilton Sydney. We took a taxi from the Hilton to Bennelong Point (it was raining), but it would have been quicker to walk, and the cost seemed exorbitant for the distance that we traveled.

September 1 (Saturday): Sydney
We participated in the Sydney Harbour Bridge dawn bridge climb, which is only available on the first Saturday morning of the month. The entire climbing process lasts about 3.5 hours, beginning at check-in at 3:45 am. (Please see my separate review of the Sydney Bridge Climb.)

After the bridge climb, we headed back to the Hilton for breakfast, then we hopped on the Ho-Ho bus to finish our tour of the city. We particularly enjoyed our trip to the fish market. We had sunset drinks at Baia The Italian in Darling Harbour, where they offered 2-for-1 specials, so we had two rounds of drinks for $26 total. That evening, we had a reservation to dine at Momofuku Seiobo at the Star Casino. (Please see my separate review on Momofuku Seiobo.)

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Momofuku Seiobo - Stylish Space, Great Food, Decent Service
My spouse and I dined at Momofuku Seiobo at the Star Casino for dinner in late August 2012. We have dined at several of David Chang’s other restaurants in New York City, so when we learned that Chang had a restaurant in Sydney, we made it our mission to secure a reservation. We logged onto his reservation system at precisely the correct time 10 days before, and had no trouble selecting our desired time.

It is difficult to locate this restaurant in the casino - the door has no signage other than Chang’s logo of a peach. When we entered the restaurant, fortunately we were led to one of the choice seats at the bar/counter; we had not realized that this restaurant also features table seating for approximately 30+ guests, which would not have pleased us. (We love to sit at the counter and watch them work.) There were approximately 16+ seats at the chef’s counter. Although the restaurant was built to suit, it only features one small unisex restroom that you reach through the back kitchen area.

Seiobo serves an 8-course lunch on Friday and Saturday for $100, and serves a 12+ course dinner from Monday through Saturday for $175. I added the juice tasting to my degustation menu for an additional $55; however, it was not impressive because it did not feature any truly unusual juices or combinations of juices/ingredients. Our total bill at Seiobo was $510. The restaurant also has a tiny 5-seat bar that does not accept reservations; it serves a bar menu, not the tasting menu.

The food was excellent (unique ingredients and interesting presentation). Service was good, but not great. The chef’s seemed a little cold and unapproachable, even the chef de cuisine and the sous chef who had worked in David Chang’s US restaurants, where the chefs give a warm welcome and are clearly passionate about their jobs.

We particularly enjoyed the pork bun, the radish salad, and the unconventional last course (a sort of savory “dessert” that we ate with our hands). We were given an odd packet of kimchi as a take-along gift.

Overall, our meal was good, but not the outstanding experience we have come to associate with a David Chang restaurant.

September 2 (Sunday): Sydney to San Francisco to Newark

We took a cab from the Hilton to the airport. We investigated going by train, because there was a station underground quite close to the hotel, but it was not any more cost-effective to travel by train, yet we would have had greater time restrictions.

We departed on Continental Airlines flight CO0870 from Sydney (SYD) at 2:45 pm, arriving in San Francisco (SFO) at 11:02 am. We flew on a Boeing 747-400 in seats 33H/33J (exit row, bulkhead, premium economy). We had a 3 hour: 32 minute layover in San Francisco. We used our Global Entry membership for easy entry back into the United States. After claiming our bags, we had to recheck them for our domestic flight, then clear security again for our domestic flight. We spent some time at the Buena Vista Cafe and the Anchor Steam Brewery at the San Francisco Airport during our layover.

We departed on Continental Airlines flight CO1739 from San Francisco (SFO) at 2:34 pm, arriving in Newark (EWR) at 10:50 pm. We flew a Boeing 737-800 in seats 21D/21E (exit row, bulkhead/premium economy).

Conclusion

We enjoyed our trip to Australia, although for the cost and effort involved in traveling, staying, and playing there, for us personally, we did not see enough unique things in the country to make it a fantastic trip. Much of the scenery that we saw (the Blue Mountains, Tropical North Queensland, Sydney) reminded us of places we have seen in the United States. We liked snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, but we did not find it to be better than snorkeling we have done on Caribbean Islands. The bridge climb was fun, but not as adrenaline-provoking as we had anticipated. We loved our sailboat experience, but again, that could have been done anywhere. We loved holding the koala bears - that was an activity that we could not have done anywhere else. But we seem to be in the minority - great numbers of people love Australia and say it is their favorite trip ever - perhaps we just chose poorly in the places we selected to visit. Our trip may have been different if we had chosen to visit Ayers Rock/Uluru, the western coast, and Kangaroo Island.

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