Australia Experiences - Sharing Info With Fodorites

Sep 7th, 2004, 09:28 PM
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Australia Experiences - Sharing Info With Fodorites

My family (wife and 12 year old daughter) recently returned from a 23 day trip to Australia and New Zealand. We were in Australia from July 27th to the 11th and spent the rest of the time in New Zealand. I gathered a fair amount of information from this site so I thought I should try to give back to this group so others could benefit from our experience.

Just to calibrate a bit, we tend to travel to warm weather locales and stay in nicer upscale places. The accommodations usually aren't resorts (except when we travel to Hawaii), but are reasonably nice and have a decent chance to find other kids for our daughter to pal around with.

Spent 4 nights in Sydney at the Saville 2 Bond Street Hotel. This hotel is located in the CBD about 4 or 5 blocks from the Harbor. You have no view (except for the roof - where the little pool and hot tub is), but we thought that this hotel had the best room of all that we stayed in on the trip. Packed into 400 square feet or so was a "living room" (with a loveseat sofa bed, a chair, a round table with 4 chairs, and an entertainment center with a TV and a small stereo), a kitchen (with a small fridge, oven, microwave, dish washer, sink, toaster, dishes, glasses, silverware, ...), a "master bedroom" (with two end tables, a queen size bed, closet with lots of drawers and hanger space), and a bathroom (shower and a space saving washer/dryer). Floors were marble and carpet and counter tops were granite. In general, the room felt much larger than it was, but the bathroom is likely too small for some (we had no problem). It's just a marvel for its size, conviently located (near a market across the street in the subway area, walking distance to attractions, etc). It should be noted, however, that this hotel is targeted towards business folks and has little in the way of a restaurant (it has a little cafe downstairs) and no night club. It also had few other children, if any, making Sydney my daughter's least favorite stop on the trip.

As far as attractions, we enjoyed cruising the harbor, visting Manley, even going to Luna Park, but two things stood out for us. Walking back across the Harbor Bridge towards the Opera House at night was particularly spectacular. Also, the Sydney Aquarium, in Darling Harbor, was surprisingly good. I'm not the biggest aquarium fan, but this was was well laid out, didn't have that sheer density that often overwhelms, and was quite interesting - especially the Platypus exhibit (we visited those critters 3 times).

Food was good, but we ate in our room several nights (and always had breakfast there). Of the places we did eat at, Edna's Table was quite tasty. We dined there at lunch in hopes of getting some good food at a reasonable (non-dinner) price. Food was a bit eclectic and excellent; however, prices were the same as for dinner. My picky eater had a bowl of french fries and some tidbits from an appetizer. The Gumnut Cafe in the Rocks was also quite good. Again, we ate lunch here and the food offered was a collection of interesting sandwiches, soup, and quiches made from a variety of fresh vegtables and meats. I'd certainly recommend both places.

We moved on to the Whitsunday Islands for 3 nights. While we stayed on Hamilton, I would have preferred to stay on several other islands instead. This was more a choice of convenience (we had an early morning flight out). The room was spacious and clean and had a spectacular view of the islands (we were on the 14th floor). It was more like a traditional hotel room (no kitchenette, etc), but the room and bathroom were quite large. It was fun for my daughter because Hamilton had many children on it and it also boasted a wide variety of restaurants. We didn't bother with the buggy (golf cart) rentals. Walking was fine - even for my daughter.

As for activities, we enjoyed the Snorkeling & Whitehaven Beach tour as well as our Sea Kayaking adventure. Snorkeling was on Chalkie's Beach. The fringing reef here was quite good (have snorkeled in Hawaii often and in the Carribean) and we did wear wet suits. Visited Whitehaven breifly and found the sand to be like flour or talcum powder. It makes a strange noise when you walk on it. Sea kayaking didn't include my daughter (she went to a surpervised day program in the morning). We didn't see much wildlife, but the guide was a character and we had a pleasant time of it anyway. My daughter and I did check out the small animal zoo they had here as well. Again, a bit expensive and very small, but the Koalas are cute, the Cassowaries unique, and the entrance fee is good for your entire stay. We intended to do some whale watching here, but there were no tours available at this time. A bit hit and miss for this area and this time of year I guess.

Food was also hit and miss. The seafood buffet was probably the biggest disappointment. The crabs were just OK and they were the best thing on the menu. Breakfast was included with our room. It was a buffet and was usually quite good. It included many of the usual suspects with fresh fruit and juice, cereal, eggs, bacon, french toast, etc. On the hit side, Mariners (I believe), was just outstanding while a bit pricey. All three of us considered it to be one of the top 2 or 3 restaurants we ate at. Another restaurant down the street from Mariner's and on the water served exceleent gourmet pizzas, but the name escapes me now.

In the end, I would suggest sailing around the Whitsunday's if you have the time and the stomach for it. If not, you may want to consider some of the other islands as well. It is also the case that when the tide rolled out, you were left with a somewhat unsightly beach scene (black tar like stuff all around), but it never bothered us (it may bother others though).

Moved on to Dunk Island and stayed at the only place on the island (there are camping sites here as well). We stayed in a Beachside Suite here. We spent most of our sunset time out on the Veranda sipping wine that we stored in the room's refrigerator. The room includede two full beds (that we puched together to form a king) and a day bed that my daughter used. Bathroom was modern with a combination tub and shower and had a large vanity area with a double sink. The room was open, airy, and clean with light woods and a white tile floor.

Breakfast and dinner were included in the cost of our accomodations and were uniformly good. Breakfast was a buffet with a number of choices including fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, cereal, as well as hot items like eggs, bacon, pancakes, and/or french toast. You could get honey as it dripped from a honeycomb encased in glass - a nice touch. Dinner was a themed buffet or a three course sit down meal. We had both and were pleased with both (although the sit down seemed a bit better).

As for activities, we sailed a catamaran around the bay, hiked to the top of the island (where we saw many wild bush turkeys), and went on a bird watching tour. I played nine holes of golf using the free clubs (a 3,5,7,9, 3-wood, putter) on the thing they call a golf course. It was fun, but not something worth even the $15 I paid to play it. The women went to the farm and visited the donkeys. At night, we went to the lounge and enjoyed the music played by the two-man band and my daughter won the hula hoop contest.

We went to the GBR from Dunk. This was an excellent choice since both me and my daughter can get motion sick on boats. The trip to the reef from Dunk is only 50 minutes. I would mention, however, that the trip is half-price if you come and go from the mainland (Mission Beach) on Wednesdays and Sundays (I beleive). The choice of GBR reef tours was also good because we landed near a Sand Cay that they would ferry you to and from. So, for those uncomfortable with diving straight into the ocean, you could just walk in from the Cay. Saw most everything that was on the wildlife posters on board the ship. On the way back, we got the added bonus of spotting whales. The captain pulled along side for about 15 minutes and we got to see some spectacular action.

All in all, Dunk Island was probably the family favorite given the food, atmosphere, sunsets, and the people we met and befriended while there. A good place with a laid back atmosphere that probably doesn't excel at anything, but is very good at nearly everything.

Our last stop was in Port Douglas and we stayed at the Hibiscus Gardens. Our room had a seperate bedroom (first on the trip), a shared bathroom, a living room with a sofa, chair, coffee table, and a credenza with a TV on it. There was a tiny kitchenette wedged into the corner. We also had a patio area with a large round wooden table and chairs. Given the time of year, we generally ate out on the patio - no bug or humidity problems here (or anywhere for that matter). There was a rollaway bed for my daughter. Again, the room was quite nice and clean - decorated with darker woods - trying to give it a polynesian look. The hotel had two pools and a day spa (which my wife and daughter tried out and thought was fun). There were children around, but my daughter didn't play with them much. She did, however, swim at the small pools on occasion. The hotel was close enough to the shops and restaurants in town (about 2 or 3 blocks to the start of the main drag) as well as to 4 mile beach (about 4 or 5 blocks).

Port Douglas itself is a small town by comparison to Cairns. Cairns struck us as like Ocean City, Maryland - an older sea side town with modest accomodations, t-shirt shops, etc. PD seemed to be a bit nicer with some top flight restaurants, good boutique shops, and an excellent beach (which you can swim in given the time of year - no stingers yet). We planned to do mostly land based activities here since we had done two islands and the GBR already. We went up to Cape Trib and the Daintree Rainforest from here. We took a guided tour near the Mossman Gorge. It was lead by an Aboriginal guide. My wife really wanted to take this tour and I thought it might be OK. I was wrong - it was actually outstanding. Even my daughter said that the tour was good (but don't tell mom). Nearly everything the guide showed was absolutely fascinating. At the end, our guide even got a local artist to play the Digerie Doo (spelling) for us. All in all, a very pleasant tour. We also visited Hartley's Crocodile Farm. While we thought it might be a bit too touristy, we found it to be much better than expected. Sure, the Crocs and the Croc shows were great, but feeding the Cassowaries was really special and the Koalas again were quite cute. Also, they have their own Steve Irwin like character who was very entertaining. Careful, though, this is a farm - not a nature preserve. They are growing animals for meat and skins if this matters to you. We also took a night cruise down the Daintree and spotted lots of birds including King Fishers as well as Crocodiles (mostly saw just Crocodile eyes peering across the water). The most amazing part, howeverm is the sky. What a view - the Milky Way and the Souther Cross - the stars are just incredible up there.

Finally, I did play the links golf course in PD. Solid course (yardage seemed a bit off), a bit too young (or greens were just hard), and a bargain if played at twi-light rates (after 2 pm for me).

Restaurants in PD were excellent. In particular, Salsa Bar & Grill was our top choice on the trip. Outstanding food, service, and ambiance (techno-pop fusion jazz music and a buzzing outdoor scene). Again, the whole family thought this was the best. My coffee? braised Duck (and I never order Duck) was awesome as was our dessert. We ate at several other good restaurants in PD, but their names escape me for now (sorry).

Anyway, that's a lot of what we did and liked. Most of it comes from a "family vacation survey" we each filled out on return. Honestly, we have never done anything like a "survey", but I thought it would be fun on the flight home to get each family member's idea of what was the best, worst, most surprising, experiences on the trip. Turns out, the foolish survey idea was a good one.

Hope some of this is useful to others. I will post some impressions of New Zealand later on.

kidnme is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 01:10 AM
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What a great reportp especially since you did some things that haven't been noted here before.Thanks!
lcuy is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 05:20 AM
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Thanks Icuy for an interesting and detailed report. I think you've been a little unfair on Cairns, when you dismiss it as an "old seaside town with modest accommodations and t-shirt shops" when in fact it has three 5-star hotels and Port Douglas has one. If you check - which is the Queensland official hotel star rating authority coming under the umbrella of national AAA Tourism you will find 5 star ratings apply to Cairns International Hotel, Radisson Plaza at Pier, Hotel Sofitel Reef Casino in Cairns city and Angsana Resort and Spa at Palm Cove, which is a beach suburb of Cairns. Whilst 5 star ratings apply to some apartments and villas in PD the only current 5 star hotel rating applies to Sheraton Mirage. Recently I posted a report on latest North Queensland Restaurant Awards - there were more in Cairns than PD.
pat_woolford is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 06:23 AM
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and to continue, sadly the Garden Room Restaurant, Stratford - 8 km north of Cairns city was neglected as a winner as its not in a tourist area, but nominated by two different pairs of American visitors on this forum as the best food they've eaten in Australia. I would not disagree.
pat_woolford is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 06:42 AM
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Thank you for the report!
Can you tell me who/what company your Mossman tour was with?
pb_and_j is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 10:23 AM
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Pat Woolford

I agree that kidnme under-rated Cairns judging from his/her comments. We stayed in Cairns for seven nights in a not-so-upscale hotel (as you know), but a reasonable family-oriented resort. We also stayed at the Hibiscus Gardens in Port Douglas and possibly the same suite. It was lovely and somewhat upscale, but after a couple of days I missed the vitality, the energy of Cairns. And I'm 72 and husband77!

Perhaps kidnme didn't give himself/herself enough time to explore and experience Cairns. True there are souvenir shops and some tacky* places like most touristy destinations, and modest accommodations, but it is definitely not like Ocean City, Maryland.

The luxury hotels were there (too expensive for us) as well as some beautiful and interesting architecture. Cairns ambience was right. A little of everything but you have to explore. Like Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, if you don't explore you may only see the very tacky areas and miss the beautiful.


michi is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 10:40 AM
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Hi pat--just to correct, it was Kidnme who commented on Cairns. I'm the one who found Palm Cove boring! We had a lot of fun going into in Cairns- we went go karting, saw a movie at the shopping center, visited some art galleries and went shopping for 'junque' at the open market. I wouldn't call Cairns a charming beach town (I'd rather stay in Port Douglas) but Cairns was not lacking in amusements or nice hotels.
lcuy is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 07:18 PM
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Sorry Icuy - I shouldn't drink and type!
pat_woolford is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 07:35 PM
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great report, kidnme - thanks for taking the time!
margo_oz is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 08:06 PM
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yeah should have a designated typer so you don't make a typo. Definitely not a designated drinker though, that wud taak all the fuun oud of wrtiing on foooodrs..
lcuy is offline  
Sep 8th, 2004, 09:31 PM
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First, I'd like to respond to the individual that wanted to know which tour company we used around the Mossman Gorge area. It was KuKu-Yalanji Dreamtime Walks. They have a website that you can check out.

As far as the small ruckus I caused about Cairns, I guess I should respond again to help people out. I do think all the comments are quite relevant and everyone should pay close attention to them all. I do think, however, that often times the most useful information comes from people that either we closely identify with or are near polar opposites. This allows one to determine if some recommendations are appropriate for themselves or not. That's why I included the small "calibration" portion of the experience. I did not mention, for instance, that my wife is a Microbiologist. So, cleanliness of accommodations is fairly important to her. You may, however, have guessed that cleanliness was important as it was mentioned several times during my expose.

So, it actually is important that our "first impression" of Cairns was as it was. Cairns may be nothing like we described. We did meander through it several times and did shop in the local mall to buy some books and eat a quick lunch. It is most convenient for trips to the Reef and it has the airport. It also is much larger than most cities up North and as a result, it has a wider choice of activities, etc; however, that being said, I would agree with the poster that said Port Douglas was a "charming seaside" resort area. This appealed to us in a way that Cairns may not have.

If you need more background on me to gauge things by, I am a fastidious researcher of just about everything. Often times, people ask me about random things in the hopes that I have "researched it to death" and can give them some data and opinions. Sometimes, they hope that they'll peek my interest enough to go research their topic anyway. With respect to this trip, research started over 2 years ago and included reading nearly every guide book available, consulting many web sites and forums, talking with a select few travel agents, talking with close friends who had visited Australia, and conversing with others who live or lived in Australia (also, I would highly recommend you read Bill Bryson's - In a Sunburned Country). Anyway, when I first read about Port Douglas, the first impression I had was "Hawaii". Hawaii is someplace we really enjoy visiting - it?s like another country, but its not (we're Americans). I did not get that impression about Cairns. Of course, once we visited PD, I would say it isn't really like Hawaii, but its "ambiance" seemed to be quite a bit like it to us. Anyway, all of this just adds more information to you about who we are and what we like. This should help you decide whether some of the things I say ring true to you or not. You get the idea.

Again, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip Down Under and I'm more than happy to answer any questions you have about our trip. Also, in the "Pay It Forward" tradition, I will write about our limited experience in New Zealand.
kidnme is offline  
Sep 9th, 2004, 05:53 AM
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Hi Michi - I'm glad you enjoyed Cairns - certainly it's not all perfect - its the kind of place which caters for all types of tourists as well as sustaining a non-tourist related local population. Sure, there's fairly basic 60's type motels in some areas - not everyone can afford "upscale" accommodation, and there are suburbs where the more disadvantaged live. Haven't been to Ocean City, MD but a quick check of the atlas reveals its about 40 degrees in latitude north of the equator, Cairns is a tropical small city 18 degrees south - I can't figure out kidnme's comparison. The reference to kidnme's wife being a microbiologist absolutely mystifies me and can only conclude that combined with his other remarks about cleanliness that Cairns falls short of his expectations.

Anyway Michi, if you ever come back here give me a ring and I'll take you around Cairns areas, such as Crystal Cascades, Lake Morris, 7 mile beach - all surrounded by Wet Tropics rainforest.

Kidnme, I enjoyed Bill Bryson's "Down Under" but its more entertainment than fact. Considering you're so keen on factual research, why not try something written by an Australian. You were at Dunk Island - did you read Banfield's "Confessions of a Beachcomber" - or more pertinent to Cairns the multi award winning Australian author (sadly recently deceased) Thea Astley - Its Raining in Mango may have given you a little more insight.
pat_woolford is offline  
Sep 11th, 2004, 08:10 PM
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Pat Woolford

If and when we get back to Cairns, I will be staying with you, so you can show me around.


michi is offline  
Sep 12th, 2004, 09:56 AM
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I can always recommend Pat Woolford's Lilybank B&B for it's spanking fresh cleanliness in Cairns.

In addition you have the pleasure of Pat and Mike's company.

Thanks for the detailed report . We enjoyed staying in both Cairns and PD.

AndrewDavid is offline  
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