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No sun. No worries. 18 days in Sydney, North Queensland, Red Center and Melbourne by mr/ms_go

No sun. No worries. 18 days in Sydney, North Queensland, Red Center and Melbourne by mr/ms_go

Jul 6th, 2007, 01:34 PM
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No sun. No worries. 18 days in Sydney, North Queensland, Red Center and Melbourne by mr/ms_go

Hi all, we just returned Wednesday night from our first trip to Australia and are working hard to finish our trip report while all the wonderful details are still fresh in mind. So, without further delay....

As the wheels went up in Nice last summer, at the end of our family holiday in France, we began discussing prospects for this year�s trip. The consensus appeared to be Norway. We bought a book or two. We posted some questions here. We researched flights. And our daughter, Allie, even took interest in a Norwegian boy at camp later in the summer.

Somewhere along the line, though, we got turned completely around...and ended up spending almost three weeks in Australia.

How? Last year, United Airlines announced some changes in its Mileage Plus program, among which were an increase in miles required for Australia/New Zealand award tickets by 20K per seat, effective in mid-October. Always interested in getting the biggest bang for our buck (or, in this case, miles), we decided to investigate. After a month or so of further consideration, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time, just as United opened up copious premium award inventory and before the new mileage requirements went into effect. We spent 180K miles for two business class award tickets for travel from Chicago-Sydney and returning Melbourne-Chicago, and an additional 60K miles to upgrade a paid economy ticket for the same itinerary. Retail value: over $30K.

Then, the serious planning began.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 01:36 PM
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Wow--after five tries at posting this today, it finally worked! I will continue on....
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Jul 6th, 2007, 01:40 PM
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First, a bit of background. We are a mid-40s couple from Chicago with a 14 y/o daughter. We typically take one family vacation each year, usually in the summer, for which we spend months obsessing and planning (it’s half the fun!). For the past eight years or so, all of our trips have been to Europe. This was the first trip to the southern hemisphere for any of us, and the first transpac trip for Chris and Allie. We are typically middle-of-the road travelers and not foodies or big shoppers. The last two years, we’ve rented an apartment/house as a cornerstone for our trips. This has worked out well, so we aimed to do something similar—at least to have a self-catering facility with laundry, etc.—for a block of time in the middle of the trip.

The first order of business was deciding how to allocate 18 days/nights (not including travel days) among many desirable locations. We wanted to get a diverse flavor of Australia—cities, wildlife, scenery, history, culture, etc. But, we were also well aware that Australia is the size of the continental US and we simply would have to resist the urge to do it all.

Given the time of year—mid-June to early July—we decided it was best to allocate the largest concentration of time in North Queensland. Sydney and Melbourne were a lock, given that we were flying into the former and out of the latter. This left a decision between Darwin/Kakadu and the Red Centre, and for how long?

After much study and many hours here at Fodors, we ultimately arrived at the following itinerary:
-Sydney, 4 nights
-Daintree/Cape Tribulation area, 2 nights
-Palm Cove, 6 nights
-Yulara, 2 nights
-Yarra Valley, 2 nights
-Melbourne, 2 nights

It isn’t a particularly creative or unique itinerary, but we felt it would provide us with a solid first visit to Australia.

Of course we poured over this Fodors board, TripAdvisor and other resources to find accommodations and plan activities. Thank you, again, to all who have contributed here—your input was invaluable in helping us build a very memorable and enjoyable trip.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 01:44 PM
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In no particular order, these are some of the things we enjoyed most:

1. Swimming and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef—at Lizard Island and Opal Reef.

2. Taking the plunge—bungy jumping at AJ Hackett’s near Cairns (well, for Chris and Allie anyway; there was no way Marisa was going up that tower, even to watch!)

3. Getting up close and personal with the rainforest, day and night

4. Hiking the Valley of the Winds at Kata-Tjuta

5. Joining the legions of shutterbugs and kindred spirits to watch the sun rise and set on Uluru

6. Tasting wine at vineyards throughout the Yarra Valley (and, well, just drinking wine all over the country)

7. Seeing scenic Sydney Harbor from the ferries

8. Feeding kangaroos by hand at the Healesville Sanctuary

9. Wandering and exploring the Rocks area of Sydney

10. Seeing another side of North Queensland on a leisurely drive through the Atherton Tablelands

11. Exploring the colorful alleyways and arcades of Melbourne’s central business district

12. Eating fish and chips at Manly

13. Looking out at the Sydney skyline as our plane descended in the pre-dawn. We’ve seen many pictures, but there’s nothing like seeing it for the first time in person.

Of course, there were lots of others. We’ll detail some of those later in this report.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 01:56 PM
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Getting there, getting around, and getting back

This trip involved a lot more travel than we typically undertake. In all, we flew more than 25,000 miles on planes that ranged from 747s to a 10-seat Piper.

The trip to Australia went pretty much as planned. Our Chicago-LA segment was in Economy Plus; the only one that did not book into a premium cabin. By booking early, we were able to secure some of the best seats on the upper deck for the LA-Sydney flight, and that is definitely the way to go. It was dark for almost the entire flight, and we all got some sleep...even Chris, whose inability to catch 40 winks while airborne is a curse of long standing.

We watched fares for quite awhile before purchasing the domestic flights around February/March of this year. We ended up with a pretty good special fare of just over US$100 on Virgin Blue for the Sydney-Cairns segment. Qantas is the only game in town when going to/from the Red Centre, so there are not too many deals to be had.

Virgin Blue. This is about what we expected. Using on-line check-in saved a few minutes on the front end. They seem pretty strict about the 20kg weight limit. Everything—from the water, to the in-flight entertainment, to the lamb dinner—is available for an additional fee. The seat pitch is very tight.

Qantas domestic. Good service. A little better pitch and more comfortable seat than Virgin Blue. Meals provided on the longer (2-3 hour) flights were pre-packaged sandwiches. Alcoholic beverages were available for purchase--$5 for beer and $6 for wine. Movies played on an overhead screen, with some decent selections. A more liberal checked baggage allowance, at 32kg. A little bonus: these will earn me a few AA miles and, in turn (due to a current UA promotion) some elite qualifying miles on United.

We rented cars for the Queensland, Red Centre and Yarra Valley portions of the trip—12 of our 18 days—in order to maximize flexibility. All of our cars (Avis and Hertz) were small or mid-sized Toyota automatics. We’ve previously driven on the left, but it has been a few years. Chris made just a couple of inconsequential lapses to the wrong side of the road, and Marisa routinely turned on the windshield wipers while trying to activate the turn signal. Otherwise, we had no problems at all and were very happy to be able to drive ourselves around. We even navigated straight into the Melbourne CBD, thanks to some very specific directions from maryk. After a minor contretemps with our rental car in France last year, and because our own insurance company does not cover rentals in Australia, we decided to take the excess coverage. It added a few hundred dollars to our total cost, but it was worth it for the peace of mind.

The trip back was a bit more interesting. We were booked in business class from Melbourne to Sydney to San Francisco to Chicago, all on United and again with carefully selected upper-deck seats for the transpac segment. At 10pm the evening before our return, we received a voicemail message indicating that our Melbourne-Sydney flight had been cancelled—the downstream effect of a maintenance issue that forced the cancellation of the earlier LA-Sydney flight. After 30 minutes on the phone with a CSR in Chicago, we were confirmed on a Qantas domestic flight in the morning that would get us to Sydney in time to catch the flight to San Francisco. The catch was, we’d have to get the United desk at the airport to issue paper tickets in the morning, and then hope that we could get over to the Qantas domestic terminal before the cut-off time...a real stretch.

Fortunately, a proactive United service director in Melbourne had a better idea. She rebooked us, in business class, on a Qantas flight from Melbourne to LA connecting to a United flight to Chicago. We enjoyed the Qantas lounge (now that’s what we call a business lounge!), the lay-flat seats, the video on-demand, the superior catering, and of course the service.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 02:08 PM
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We landed in the midst of rain and heavy winds—the Manly ferry made the newscast that evening as it struggled to make its way through the waves. But, by the time we exited the terminal, the sun was out and the first thing we saw while waiting in the cab queue was a rainbow. A good omen?

Immigration, baggage claim and customs took about an hour. The sniffing beagles made a pass through the immigration line, stopping briefly at the man behind us (he claimed it was his shoes). This was also the first time we can recall going through x-ray checks to get out of the airport.

Our trip into Sydney didn’t start on a particularly good note. As soon as we left the curb, it became apparent that the cab driver had never heard of our hotel, The Rocks neighborhood or Argyle/Kent streets. Moreover, his GPS device led him a bit off course. We eventually found our hotel, with the help of a detailed map that we supplied. The driver was very apologetic, insisting that he would take only $25—about what we expected it to cost, anyway.

We arrived at the Lord Nelson Brewery at about 8am and were delighted to find that our room was ready and available—enabling us to shower and unpack a bit before heading out to explore the city. Having slept on the plane, we were able to keep going the first day with just a small shot of caffeine later in the day. This helped us adjust quickly to the time difference—jet lag was never a real issue on this trip (well, until we got home that is...says the one who has been up at 2:30am and 4:30 am, respectively, on the two mornings since getting home).

Sydney is a beautiful city, and a very dramatically set one. Unfortunately, we saw very little of it in the sun. Over four full days, we experienced a sum total of around two hours of sunshine. We can only imagine how stunning it must be with clear, blue skies—which did not materialize during our stay until the moment we stepped on our Virgin Blue flight to Cairns. It did rain quite a bit during our stay, but we seemed to have good timing—being inside during most heavy downpours. From what we ascertained, the weather in any one area can change from sun to rain in a matter of mere moments. We made sure we were always carrying umbrellas.

We won’t go into day-to-day detail here about our four days in Sydney, but we did enjoy the following:

-The iconic Opera House, inside and out; it is much different on the inside than we expected—more Scandinavian and a little retro-70s in style

-The Royal Botanic Gardens; a green oasis in the big city, with awesome views of the harbor

-Circular Quay, with its hustle and bustle of boat traffic

- The Rocks—including the architecture, weekend market, etc.

-Observatory Hill for day and night views

-The Harbor Bridge; we did not choose to do the Bridge Climb (to be honest, it looked miserable in the wind and rain) and we never did make it up the pylon, but we did walk part way across and photographed it from many vantage points

-The aquarium; we have a notable one in Chicago, and this was still impressive

-The Taronga Zoo, particularly the cable car ride to the top and the bird show in the amphitheater overlooking the harbor

-The Sydney Tower; we found this helpful for getting our bearings and figuring out where everything is

-The Australian Museum; an old-school museum with some interesting displays of insects and skeletons and an interesting Indigenous Australia exhibit

-Chinatown, including yum cha lunch; Chris had never done dim sum before and enjoyed it; Marisa enjoyed taking the lead in ordering, for a change

-Queen Victoria Building in the CBD (the inside reminded Marisa of GUM in Moscow, somewhat)

-Manly, including walks on the Corso, beach and headlands and a little shopping

These more than filled our four days in the city, so we did not plan a trip to the Blue Mountains. As the weather was, that probably ended up a wise decision. Some parts of the area had flooding problems, and the Blue Mountains actually had snow on our last day there. We see enough of that in Chicago!

We used the ferries to get to Darling Harbour, the Taronga Zoo and Manly—of course, with the secondary purpose of seeing various parts of the harbor. Highly recommended! We purchased the combined ferry/admission family passes for the zoo and aquarium.

Otherwise, we walked, and walked, and walked. The Sydney Ferries website has some useful, downloadable walking tours that we used for the Botanic Garden, Manly and other areas.

We also ate. A lot. We didn’t seek out any specific or notable restaurants, but we did have a few pretty good meals.

-Pizza at Eastbank Café on Circular Quay
-Yum cha at East Ocean
-Italian at Lucetta on Kent
-Fish and chips at Café Steyne in Manly
-And of course, pub grub at the Lord Nelson

The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. This is noted as Sydney’s oldest hotel, dating from the mid-1800s, and it was perfect for us. We loved the area, especially, and the character and history. Our room was on the top floor, on the corner facing both Argyle and Kent. It was spacious enough, with a king bed and single bed and several dormered windows and a modern bath. We were slightly concerned about noise from the pub on the ground floor, but it was never an issue. We occasionally heard the wind and rain and a few cars, but that was it. We slept well. A nice continental breakfast with breads, cereal and fresh fruit comes with the room. Downstairs, the pub grub is hearty, the fire is warm and the home-brewed beer is terrific! We didn’t try the food at the bistro upstairs from the pub, but the food is supposed to be fairly good. We would stay here again. A$230 for a triple room with breakfast.

Sydney photos (still a bit of a work in progress):
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Jul 6th, 2007, 02:21 PM
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Queensland, Part I

This part of the trip was primarily about the rainforest and the reef. To get the best possible flavor of the rainforest, we decided to stay right in it for a couple of nights, followed by a longer stint in a centrally located accommodation—and importantly, one that provided us with a little more space and some laundry facilities.

Our flight to Cairns on Virgin Blue was uneventful—we saw nothing but clouds all the way north. The airport is small, and we were quickly on our way in a blue Toyota Corolla hatchback. It didn’t have enough room to conceal all of our luggage, so we just planned our travel to avoid any stops on days when we were moving between accommodations. And anyway, we were anxious to get up to our rainforest accommodation.

The drive between Cairns and the Daintree River (and beyond), especially beyond the northern beach suburbs, is quite scenic—well, for the passengers anyway. The driver will have other concerns. At times, it winds along the coast with (perhaps) more turns and curves than we expected. A good re-introduction to driving on the left! We ended up making this drive about four times, and we didn’t tire of it. Just watch out for those speed cameras.

We booked our first two nights in the rainforest at Daintree Wilderness Lodge. Allie saw the photos of the “treehouse” cabins when we were researching last year, and that was her number-one request.

Our stay in Sydney was nice, but it was not until we reached this accommodation that we really felt we were someplace “different.” The seven or so cabins are nicely appointed—not luxurious but very appropriate for the surroundings. Our room had a queen and a single and a nice sized bath, along with a front porch and an array of windows and skylights for viewing the surroundings. With the high canopy, it remains fairly dark most of the time. A light, steady rain fell from the time we crossed the Daintree River until sometime early the next morning—adding to the ambience. A very nice cooked breakfast comes with the room—eggs Florentine one day and pancakes the other. There’s also a very nice open-air restaurant for dinners. It was too cold to use the pool. The only real downside was the heavy presence of mosquitoes—particularly for Marisa, the mosquito magnet—but, that’s not unique to the lodge. We enjoyed this; a very unique stay. A$220 for a triple room with breakfast.

From here, our primary activity was a full-day, private rainforest walk with Pete Baxendell, who came highly recommended on this forum. Pete picked us up in his Range Rover at 8am, and over the next nine or so hours, we learned more than we ever imagined about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and about how the indigenous people took advantage of these resources. Notably, the rain stopped before we began our tour; it was still cloudy, but dry weather certainly added to our enjoyment. We spent about four hours in a bit of forest not far from the lodge--trekking, tip-toeing across the rocks in a creek, swinging on vines, and even using one to swing across a creek. Well, Chris and Allie went gracefully across like Tarzan and Jane. Marisa, on the other hand, went less gracefully into the water on her backside (in fairness, a lingering bike injury from a few weeks prior did contribute...). Oh yes, we actually saw a cassowary, or what Chris thought looked like a man in a bird suit walking away from us.

Pete then drove us north of Cape Tribulation to a swimming hole on the Tachalbadga Creek, where we had nice boxed lunches and then went for a swim. It was here that we learned to lick green ants for a jolt of vitamin C—and a strong taste that isn’t unlike biting into a Starburst. Pete also introduced us to the wonderful “miracle fruit.” He first cut up a ripe lime and instructed us to take a tiny bite from it. The overpowering citrusy taste left Allie sputtering. He then produced a bag of several small, red-skinned fruits that apparently originated from Kenya. We sucked on these for about 6 minutes (Pete was adamant about that amount of time) and then spit them back into the baggie. When we bit back into the limes, we found, to our surprise, that they were as sweet as can be! We finished up with a walk on Cape Trib beach. All in all, a very enjoyable and informative day—one that really gave us a nice appreciation for the area.

We also did a few other things while in the area north of the Daintree River:

-Nighttime rainforest walk on the hotel property. We actually did this before our trip out with Pete. It was interesting as well, although raining and pretty slushy. We saw some Boyd’s Forest Dragons and a few birds. You do get a whole different perspective at night. It’s a little spooky, in fact.

-Daintree Rainforest Discovery Center and Canopy Tower. By now, we had come to know quite a bit about the rainforest, but mostly from the bottom. This offered a different view, down from the top of the canopy. We did not see much wildlife.

-Cooper Creek cruise. We saw one crocodile sunning itself (well trying to anyway, despite the lack of sun) on the bank, and we learned more than we ever expected to know about mangroves.

-Daintree ice cream—good for a quick stop. Favorite flavor: wattleseed.

-And, of course, we took the Daintree River ferry over and back.

To be continued...
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Jul 6th, 2007, 02:31 PM
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I'm really enjoying your trip report! I notice you took photos of the exterior of the Opera House. I was somewhat fascinated by how it was made up of all those tiles, in really varying shades of white to beige.

And where the heck was that checkerboard in Hyde Park?! I looked all over for it! (well, apparently not ALL over or I would have found it now wouldn't have I?)

Looking forward to reading more.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 02:35 PM
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I forgot to put the link for Daintree Wilderness Lodge into the prior post, and the edit function doesn't seem to be working:

Queensland, Part II

For our other six nights in North Queensland, we moved down to Palm Cove and the Melaleuca Resort—a small hotel complex just across from the beach with self-catering accommodations.

The resorts “suites” are one-bedroom apartments—ours had a queen-sized bed in the bedroom and a sofa bed in the living room. Importantly for us, it also had a washer and dryer, which we used extensively. This helped us pack lighter overall—a real challenge when organizing a trip to multiple climates. It also had a full kitchen, equipped with most everything we needed for breakfasts and a few dinners in. We hit the nearby Cole’s on our first night there, and we were pretty much set for the week. The grounds are lush and well maintained, with a nice (albeit chilly) pool. Even though the bedroom window was on the backside of the building, we could still hear the waves at night—nice! Dedicated parking is provided under the building. The location, just across from the beach, is terrific, with many restaurant choices within five-minutes walking distance to either side. Proprietors Sonya and Robin provide lots of helpful advice and can assist with booking activities. It’s not really posh accommodation, especially compared to some of the more upscale resorts, but it’s a solid value. $227 for a one-bedroom ocean-facing apartment.

We also visited Port Douglas on this trip. It is also a nice town—a bit bigger and more spread out. We really liked the intimate size and nice beach at Palm Cove.

Our “big” activity from this spot was a day-trip to Lizard Island with Daintree Air. We booked this several months in advance, and of course you can’t really predict, nor do much about, the weather. As it turned out, the weather was iffy the whole time we were in the area—including this day. The morning weather wasn’t bad, and our trip went out with the three of us and five other passengers. The flight up along the coast and rainforest was pretty clear all the way to Cape Flattery. We took tons of photos.

The Lizard Island “airport” is a small, open-air waiting area with a couple of benches, next to a relatively short runway that cuts across the island between two mountains. The sky was relatively clear when we landed, but not so when we left later in the day. In fact, we could hear one pilot passing over in an attempt to find the runway. From the airport, it is about a 15-minute walk to Watson’s Bay, where we snorkeled—although, there is no obligation to go with the group; Greg will provide directions for anyone who wants to go off to other beaches or for walks on the island. We saw a few fruit bats but, alas, no lizards.

In addition to the views from the air, the second big attraction of this trip is the snorkeling, and it is a superlative experience. The giant-clam garden and the Nemo garden—both in the middle area of Watson’s bay—are out of this world. Once we landed, Greg turned from pilot to snorkeling instructor and patiently waited as we became reacquainted with the skill of keeping water out of our masks and tubes. We had several extended trips into the water at Watson’s bay, followed by a very nice and filling boxed lunch on the beach. This also gave us a chance to try out our new waterproof case for the Canon A80—not necessarily an easy task as you kind of have to guess what you’re aiming at, and often the fish move away too quickly.

Unfortunately, the cloud cover only got thicker, and we were not able to see the reef from the air on the return trip. Even without that, this is an experience not to be missed, and a real highlight of our trip. All equipment and fees are included in the A$590 p/p price.

The other major outing was a snorkeling trip to the outer reef with Calypso. We waited until we were in the area to book this. Our preference was a smaller boat, such as Wavelength (Port Douglas) or Ocean Spirit (Cairns), but Robin suggested that with the weather and the winds, we might be better off on something a bit bigger. He was right. We ended up going with Calypso from Port Douglas at $160 p/p. We drove ourselves to Port Douglas to avoid the pick-up/drop-off fees, which would have added a bit to our total.

On this particular day, Calypso sent out two boats—one with those just snorkeling, and one with those who would be diving. Our boat carried about the maximum, 60 people. Wetsuits, equipment and flotation aids are provided; a “reef tax fee” is paid separately on the boat. We visited three locations at Opal Reef, the first of which offered the best look at coral and fish. The second was a bit deeper, and Calypso provided a “guided” tour. During this stop, Allie and Marisa came close to a fairly good-sized reef shark, though Marisa was too startled to turn on the camera. The primary attraction of the third location was Marvin, the enormous Hump-Headed Maori Wrasse who has been meeting the boat for a number of years and has become something of a mascot. Calypso provides coffee/tea in the morning, a buffet lunch and bar service on the way back. We enjoyed a long chat with Sara and Francesco, a honeymooning couple from Milan, on the 1.5 hour trip back in.

All in all, Calypso does a nice job, although we would probably have preferred a small group. At each stop, all 60 people are donning wetsuits and fins and trying to get into the water at the same time. We got kicked in the face a few times, particularly as everyone was just off the back of the boat trying to get a look at Marvin. Also, snorkeling in choppy, open water takes a bit more concentration than snorkeling in, say, calm coves in Hawaii, so it helps to have a little space.

We learned that it is pretty hard to judge the conditions on the outer reef by what it’s like on shore. We got pretty much what we expected the day we went out—clouds and moderate winds. A few days later, we were in Port Douglas again on what seemed to be a much nicer day there. We happened into the Calypso store at the wharf and commented to the clerk that this would have been a better day for us to go, and she replied, “Oh, it was absolutely horrid out there today. They’re back in already” (this was about 3pm, whereas our trip didn’t arrive back in port until 4:30pm).

The third highlight for the area was bungy jumping at AJ Hackett’s. Chris has always wanted to try this, and Allie had been looking forward to it as well. And if you’re ever going to take the plunge, AJ Hackett’s is a great place to do it. A 165-foot-high platform stands astride a small splash pond below, which is overlooked by a nice little bar/terrace area with refreshments, food and music. A local band was setting up while we were there. The whole place has a fun, vibrant, rock-n-roll atmosphere. It’s worth noting that Chris was by far the oldest customer there, while Allie was the youngest.

As for the experience of bungy-jumping itself, well...it feels a lot like jumping head-first off a 165-foot platform with a heavy-duty elastic band wrapped around your ankles and falling at an accelerating rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. If that sounds thrilling to you, then you would definitely be thrilled. If that sounds terrifying to you, then you may well soil yourself. But one thing is for sure; that’s a lot of speed. By the time you’re halfway down, the wind is roaring loudly through your ears. But the deceleration and “bounce” is much less abrupt than you might imagine. Far more unnerving, though, is the anticipation leading up to the actual jump itself. And even more unnerving still is the sight of your 14-year-old daughter taking the plunge before you!

We’ve heard it said before that bungy-jumping is a great “leap of faith”. In truth, it’s the exact opposite. Because “faith” is that reassuring voice in your heart or in the pit of your stomach that tells you to believe when your head may be addled with doubt. But as you step out onto the edge of that platform, your heart, your stomach, and every other fiber of your being – from your dandruff to your toe jam – is shrieking insanely, “DON’T LET GO OF THE RAIL! DON’T JUMP! DON’T DO IT! DON’T!!!!!”

In fact, the only thing inside you that says otherwise is that dispassionate voice in the most rational part of your mind that calmly states, “If there was even the slightest risk of catastrophic failure associated with this activity, the insurance company would have eaten these people alive decades ago. You know it’s true.”

You can’t argue with logic like that. And so, you jump.

But that little leap means so much, symbolically. It’s about soaring beyond your basest fears and all-too-fallible instincts...taking a triumphant flight of reason over trepidation. It’s a defiant laugh in the face of gravity. To look death in its eye is to know you’re alive. So yes, we had a blast.

We also spent a day taking a leisurely drive through the Atherton Tablelands area. You can’t do justice to this area in one day, but we decided just to go see what it was like. Sonya provided a suggested driving route, and we set off through Cairns and started near Yungaburra and its “famous” curtain fig tree. By now we were quite familiar with strangler figs, but this was some tree. We also stopped to see various falls, including those on the Milla Milla circuit. And, then we headed for Mt Hypipamee National Park to see the granite crater and falls. We particular enjoyed the 2k or so hike here. Finally, we finished up with a drive to Mareeba, primarily to try out the mango wine that Greg (Daintree Air) was raving about. The proprietor of the deBrueys Winery sampled each of his products for us, and we picked up a couple to bring home (in our checked bags, of course). The drive home from Mareeba was notable for two things: giant (and we do mean giant) termite mounds along the roadside; and the first kangaroo we’d seen in almost two weeks in Australia—a dead one by the side of the road.

I hate to say it, but we blew right past the turn-off to Kuranda. Perhaps we’ll get there on another trip. As it was, we really enjoyed seeing this area, which is a nice change of pace, with its rolling hills, farms and bucolic setting.

Our final day in the area was spent exploring Mossman Gorge and Port Douglas. We did all the walks at Mossman Gorge and really enjoyed this. There were quite a few people there, but it is a big enough area that you still feel relatively secluded. One little tip—get there on the early side. The parking is mostly along the side of the road in, and it became very congested toward mid day—and not helped when someone tried to drive a large caravan in along the narrow road, requiring assistance from a ranger.

Dining highlights in the area included:
-Lunch at Salsa in Port Douglas; innovative dishes and presentation and killer margaritas made from fresh lime juice.
-A very serviceable Italian meal at Bella Baci in Palm Cove, one of the restaurants in the Pepper’s Beach Club; the pumpkin ravioli was especially good.

Everyone apologized for the weather. We don’t mind it a little on the cool side, but as with Sydney, we would have liked to see a little sun now and then. We had a few hours with sun one day—our lazy day in Palm Cove—and we spent that enjoying lunch outdoors. Otherwise, the sun did not come out in force (of course) until the morning we flew out. We know, of course, that Australia has been in the middle of a serious drought and that many parts of the country need the rain. Coming from an area that also has seen some drought conditions in recent years, we can know the rain is welcome—we just hope it’s falling the right places (from some conversations we had, we got the feeling that might not be the case).

Snorkeling photos:

Queensland photos:

(note: both are still a bit of a work in progress)

Next up will be our two days in the Red Center, although I probably won't get to that until sometime over the weekend.
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Jul 6th, 2007, 02:40 PM
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Darn, I did it again. Link for Melaleuca Resort:

And sorry about the typos. I can't make the edit function work today.
ms_go is online now  
Jul 6th, 2007, 02:45 PM
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Thanks, Toucan.

Yes, we were surprised to see that the Opera House tiles weren't uniformily white.

The chessboard was at the far end of Hyde Park--the opposite end from the ANZAC Memorial (I think that is north??).
ms_go is online now  
Jul 6th, 2007, 03:55 PM
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I'm going to have to go looking for that checkerboard again in the fall, just out of pure stubbornness.

I feel like you are doing all my research for me! I'm doing some final touch research for my trip in the fall, and some of the things you mention are things I was looking into...like the Daintree
Air trip. So not only is it just fun to read you report, it's kind of like cheating!
Toucan2 is offline  
Jul 6th, 2007, 04:11 PM
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Great report ms_go - I love the way you write - looking forward to more.
Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 6th, 2007, 09:58 PM
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This is a fantastic report. Should be compulsory reading for anyone contemplating a trip downunder. Can't wait to read the installment covering my city, Melbourne and of course the Yarra Valley. Glad you had such a good time and pleased you brought the rain with you. Perhaps make your next visit March or October!
DownUnder is offline  
Jul 6th, 2007, 10:52 PM
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Enjoying your report, sorry to hear you were very unlucky with the weather in Sydney, but we did really need the rain.
Susan7 is offline  
Jul 7th, 2007, 07:31 AM
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I'm loving your report...especially the installment with the bungy jumping. LOL!!

I'm supposed to be out doing errands and my somewhat impatient husband is waiting for me. I'll have to read the rest later and see your photos.

It sounds like an amazing adventure.
CRAZY4TRAVEL is offline  
Jul 7th, 2007, 09:34 AM
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As always, a great trip but a better trip report. Your format should be mandatory for all trip reports.
bobthenavigator is offline  
Jul 7th, 2007, 11:00 AM
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Beautiful photos...felt like I stepped into an episode of Wild Kingdom.

CRAZY4TRAVEL is offline  
Jul 8th, 2007, 05:37 AM
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Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments.

Toucan2, happy planning! And DownUnder, we very much enjoyed our time in Melbourne and the Yarra Valley. We hope to get to that part of the report early in the week. I can't say we brought the rain with us--it's been kind of dry here, actually. But I'd be happy to come back in October and/or March, if that would help

The Red Center

Our three-hour Qantas flight from Cairns to Ayers Rock (AYQ) started off over lush green forests and farm land—looking down on some of the towns we had just driven through a few days before. But, it wasn’t long before the outback unfolded beneath us, and then miles and miles of barren landscape of the Northern Territories. After awhile, you will certainly know why they call it the “Red Center.” It’s fascinating terrain to fly over, really—for the first time, anyway.

Visiting the Red Center was a dilemma for us for quite awhile and probably the last major part of the trip to be put in place.

First, we struggled with whether to include this area or the Darwin/Kakadu area. Both were of interest, and we’d heard some great things about both spots, Kakadu in particular. The decision came down to two things, really: we felt we would need more days for Darwin/Kakadu (but available days were running short at this point), and the flight times out of Darwin seemed inconvenient (i.e., leaving at 1am). As an aside, once in Australia, we heard that the Darwin area was having an unusually wet and cool June, as well.

Originally, we thought one of the camping trips (e.g., Connections Safaris) might be a fun and unique way to see the area, but we wondered about logistics and sleeping in the chilly night air. We also debated about whether to include Kings Canyon and Alice Springs or just to focus on Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. Again, with just a couple of days at our disposal, we decided just to visit the Uluru area. As appealing as Kings Canyon was, the prospect of a 400km drive between the two was not.

We then moved on to looking at conventional hotel options. As everyone knows, Voyages has the market cornered here, and it ain’t cheap. In addition to the lack of competition, though, is the need to bring in and house all of the staff, and that also drives up the prices. More on that later.

We reviewed the key options, and although we’re usually not ones to pick the top-of-the-line resort, we found a winter special for Sails in the Desert that seemed pretty good. For about the same price (around $285, or close to half the rack rate) we could have a standard room there or a deluxe room at Desert Gardens. Lost Camel looked interesting, as well, but we would have had to book two rooms.

So, Sails in the Desert it was. We didn’t read too many favorable comments about this resort before our visit, so our expectations were pretty low. The accommodation turned out to be just fine—our room was spacious, with two queen beds and a sofabed, a private patio, and a large bath with Kohler fixtures. Most of the furnishings appeared to be newer. All in all, it was very quiet and comfortable. The hotel grounds are spacious, so it never appears all that busy, even when full (apparently Qantas canceled a flight one of the days we were there, sending more than 100 people back to the resort to be accommodated). The pool area is nice, although there really aren’t enough chairs. We enjoyed a soak in the pool to reward ourselves after hiking more than 18km in less than 24 hours.

The real issue here is service. The whole place seems to be run by a handful of people in their early 20s—pleasant, well-intentioned and trying hard, but not very well trained and far too few of them. Restaurant service: slow. Poolside service: slower (actually, we had to go get it ourselves). Housekeeping: we found the previous guests’ trash behind the curtains. Reception: can’t answer a few basic questions correctly. That’s the part that makes the high cost hard to stomach. By the way, this is not just a knock on Sails, but the whole resort. But, we do understand the challenge here.

Finally, we had decisions to make re: how to see the area. We downloaded all of the package information, but it wasn’t until about a month before the trip that we decided to just rent a car and do most of it on our own. Sure, we might miss out on some interesting information, but we would be able to do everything on our own schedule—at a far lower cost.

We rented a Camry from Hertz and were off and running before most of the people on our flight from Cairns, including a large contingent of teenage People-to-People Ambassadors from Illinois and Indiana, even had their luggage. (As an aside, we ran into groups of P2P Ambassadors all over Australia, and they seemed like nice kids and really well-run groups).

We spent our 48 hours in the area as follows:

Valley of the Winds walk at Kata-Tjuta. This was our favorite. Allie said she was “giddy” with excitement. It’s a little over 7km and has some challenging parts—a reasonable fitness level and good footwear are required.

Uluru base walk. We started around 10:30am and finished in about three hours. The walk is a bit over 9kms, more when you add several diversions. It’s one thing to see the rock from a distance; it’s quite another to see it up close. The walk is relatively flat, but in some areas you are in the sun for quite a while. We were of the belief that there are no flies in the winter. Not true. Some people were walking around with the bug-net hats on. Some people were climbing; we did not. We considered joining the Anangu tour for part of the base walk, but the timing just did not fit with our schedule.

Cultural center. This is a must for learning about the area and its indigenous people. And, it is helpful to do so early in your visit.

Sunset and sunrise viewing. We went to the sunset viewing area (Uluru) both nights...the second night officially joining the “party” with our cheese, crackers and wine. We were especially fortunate to have an almost full moon hovering right over Uluru. We also made a quick drive out for the sunrise one morning. Both viewing areas are only about 15 minutes from the resort.

The one “tour” we booked for the area was for the evening night sky session at the Observatory. We figured it would be interesting to learn a little something about the stars of the southern hemisphere. I should mention that, during the previous day and a half in the area, we’d had the most amazing clear blue skies for our hikes. But wouldn’t you know it—the few little clouds we’d noticed on the horizon at sunset erupted into full-blown cloud cover by the time 8:30pm rolled around (and were miraculously gone the next morning). Our “tour” was canceled.

Dining at Yulara is about on the same level as the accommodations—price wise.

The big dining experience for the area is the Sounds of Silence dinner. We thought about it and decided not to. Sara and Francesco, whom we met on our snorkeling trip, said the setting was lovely but that the food was just okay. As it turns out, had we done it, it would have been on the night that became cloudy, and that would have been a real disappointment.

We did try the buffet dinner at Winkiku (Sails) on our first evening. We were tired and it was convenient. Although it was $58 per person, Allie ate free—luckily, it was the last night before the “free with paying adult” age dropped from 15 to 12. There is a huge selection—as expected, some things were pretty good and some are so-so. We did not go to bed hungry.

Otherwise, we tried to eat moderately:
-Breakfasts (particularly the toasted egg/cheese/bacon muffins) from the take-away place in the shopping center; get your specialty coffees at the bar at Lost Camel
-Take out pizza from Gekko’s in the shopping center, enjoyed on our patio with the cheapest ($30) bottle of wine available from the bottleshop at Outback Pioneer (note: same wine that we can buy at home for $5.99 at Trader Joes)
-Lunch at the cultural center café; a filling meal at a reasonable price, compared to the resort restaurants

It cost us about $500 each to fly to/from the Red Center—one of the factors that contributed to our hemming and hawing about whether to include it in our itinerary. Was it worth it? Yes, we think so. It’s an iconic part of Australia (at least, it's one of those things that everyone at home asks about) and an important cultural center. We learned a lot and felt the commitment to preserving the area’s heritage. It was definitely the right time of year to be visiting there. Two full days felt just about right. We have no regrets.

Red Center photos:
ms_go is online now  
Jul 8th, 2007, 04:25 PM
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You took some great photos of Uluru, it looks quite surreal at daybreak.

I don't think Voyages had the Yulara resort monopoly when I went in 1999. I do remember Voyages taking over Heron Island from P & O, there weren't too many changes, although it has (and had) patchy service also and for the same reasons I suspect: very young inexperienced wait staff.
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