Australia: Down Under For the First Time

August 2, 2010
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Thinking about planning a trip to Australia? Our seasoned travel columnists offer their best suggestions on three great places to visit on your first trip to the Land Down Under.

Photography by the authors

The road signs let you know you’re in a foreign country.

Australia is so far away, an Air New Zealand flight attendant once told us, she’d seen elderly passengers on their way back to London from Sydney become so confused they get up halfway through their flight and start putting on their raincoats!

Roger Allnutt, an Australian travel writer friend, challenges our story. “It’s not as far as people say,” he remarks. “The mistake is to include New Zealand in your trip; there’s just too much to see in our country.”

We smile, thinking, “Aha…sibling rivalry!” (Maybe New Zealand has recently beaten Australia at cricket or something.) We recall our conversation with an Australian taxi driver who was taking us to our Sydney hotel: “This is God’s own country,” he said, grinning at us over his shoulder. We murmured, “They said the same thing in New Zealand.”

“Naw,” he replied, “New Zealand is just the waiting room.”

Allnutt brushes that off. “You need two to three months to see it all,” he says earnestly, then concedes that few travelers have that much time. “That’s why no one from the U.S. West Coast ever gets to Perth, or even down to my favorite island, Tasmania,” he says. He suggests that it’s best for American travelers to choose three destinations on their first trip Down Under.

Part of any visit surely is meeting local natives. The country isn’t exactly over-populated, it has only about 22 million people -- two million less than Texas, though it’s about the same size as the United States. Be sure to talk with the locals: With Australians, what you see is what you get. A good friend from high school, now an accountant, lives in Sydney. “Tell us about Australians,” we say over dinner in Sydney Harbor. “We’re working class,” he explains, “and proud of it.”

Here are our three suggestions:

Sydney

The Opera House is the country’s signature icon, an architectural wonder long before other nations were embracing styles that would knock visitors over.

Sydney has its Koala Park, its famous harbor, and its Strand arcade shopping mall which makes you think you are in London. It’s the arrival point for most visitors by air or cruise ship. It’s also a good jumping off point for heading to other parts of the country.

Red Centre

If you feel you’re in Sydney when you first see the Opera House, you’ll surely get a sense of the country when you find Ayers Rock -- or Uluru, to use its original Aborigine name -- looming before you. Uluru is the most famous of the Olga monoliths in Australia’s center. Thirty miles away rises Kata Tjuta, another landmark of great significance to the Australian natives who have lived unchanged in this land for thousands of years.

It’s now considered disrespectful to try to climb Uluru. It may not even be smart as tourists have developed acute renal failure from attempts in such heat. Visitors on trips to visit native communities in the Red Centre, on the other hand, are often encouraged to “try an epicurean delicacy,” the Witchetty grub, a moth larva that is a source of protein for the Aborigines. It’s hard to eat something that’s still moving; and you surely don’t want to chew it. (And, no, it does not taste like chicken.)

Visitors will see creatures that are different from ours in the United States. We found 4-foot lizards on, where else, Lizard Island and smaller ones in the desert. And in the Northern Territory near Darwin, we found not grubs that we could eat but crocodiles that could eat us.

The Northern Territory or the Great Barrier Reef

The Northern Territory or the Great Barrier Reef would be the third choice for any visitor, both places if there was enough time since the attractions are in different directions. Darwin is the entry point for the Kakadu National Park. We stayed at the Gagudju Crocodile Resort in Jabiru in the center of the park. It is now, of all things, a Holiday Inn -- with the strangest profile, 820-ft.-long and in the shape of a crocodile.

This is what’s so great about Australians: Who else would build an oddly-shaped upscale hotel in the middle of a World Heritage-listed national park in a shape that few see unless they take a flight in a small plane to glimpse it from the air. (Maybe the builder of the hotel had a brother-in-law who owned the local aircraft.) It’s a long walk from the tail of the hotel to the head, more than twice the length of a football field.

The park service offers excursions to sites with dramatic rock art, tours to places where magnetic ant colonies fill up fields, all lined up like sentries with a north-south orientation -- and to re-emphasize how funky Australians can be, there are jaunts on really shallow boats amongst the water lilies and the park’s hungry crocodiles. One river boat company with a two-deck larger boat hangs bait from the upper deck so passengers on the lower deck can get the full experience as those prehistoric beasts thrash from the water to snatch their meal. “We call this their afternoon tea!” a guide tells us.

If you are returning to the U.S. from Cairns this would be a convenient time to head across to Port Douglas just north of Cairns to pick up a Quicksilver day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef. Quicksilver has been taking tourists out to a floating platform above the reef for more than 30 years.

The whole scuba industry on the east coast of Australia suffered from the dreadful 1998 event when the Outer Edge left two divers behind after they went diving on the Reef. They were never found. It was probably no comfort to their families that they died in the most beautiful of all the dive spots on the planet.

“We have other beautiful places,” says Allnutt. “The Blue Mountains near Sydney. Cities like Melbourne that have culture and old money; it’s staid, not young and frenetic like Sydney. Canberra, our national capital with all the major institutions and museums. And Adelaide, the ‘City of Churches.’ It’s different. A city that was not created by the usual convicts who started Australia!”

“Come visit,” he says. “We have varied even unique scenery, friendly people who speak your language. We have great food and wine and unusual flora and fauna. We are modern, multicultural, fresh and fantastic -- and not expensive.”

Who could resist that pitch? We couldn’t.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.