I mark 2005 as the true beginning of my international travel experience. Since then, the way I view travel has changed as I’ve seen and done more. This post marks the first in a series that collects and compares what I’ve learned. Let’s get it started with "What’s AustraliaÂ Like?", a look at what you can expect from a visit Down Undah. Watch for more "What’s ItÂ Like?" posts in the future.
Australia in a Word: Balanced
What do I mean by that? Australia struck me as a place that strikes a near-perfect balance of everything that I like in life. I saw a lot of hard-driven, Type A people on the move in Sydney. But they also had the sense to know when it’s time to relax. People love watching their Aussie rules football, rugby union and cricket matches – but I got the sense that many people love actually playing as well as watching. People talk to each other easily, even to strangers.
And here’s something else: I only had one person display any air of snobbery -- and he was being more than a little ironic and smirky about it. There a no-nonsense, non-douchey, unpretentious air to Australians that I really like. And it’s one of the first things I mention when people ask "What’s Australia like?"
Dining in Australia
I also love Australia’s adventurous food options. It’s close to Southeast Asia, so you have some of that influence seeping into all sorts of great regional ingredients. Kangaroo is a fixture on a lot of menus, as is the mild fish called baramundi (takes very well to a good curry). To this day, I’ve not had a better cheesecake than the outrageous example I had at the Mungalli Creek DairyÂ just outside Cairns. The beer scene lagged at the time, but my bet is that it’s improved (if the delicious Galaxy hops I had in a craft beer is any indicator). This might surprise you, but Australia also grows great coffee beans, and skilled baristas turn those beans into great espresso drinks (they’re not as into the brewed coffees).
OutdoorsÂ in Australia
It’s everything you’d expect. Termite mounds, snakes, huge bats, salt-water crocs, wallabies, kangaroos, water fowl -- it’s all here and abundant and impressive and potentially deadly. Start off inÂ DarwinÂ and get a tour toÂ Kakadu National ParkÂ (don’t try to do this on your own … crocs and crazy roads can make your trip turn pear-shaped),
And that scenery! You have everything from desert in places like Coober PedyÂ to thick tropical rain forests near Cape Tribulation. The coasts are scenic beyond belief.
I realize it’s impossible to get the essence of a country in just one two-week visit -- especially one as large as Australia. Still, I think my observations have some value for anyone considering a visit. People from around the world laugh at Americans who show up with just two weeks to spend – until our country catches up with the rest of the First World when it comes to vacation time, that’s pretty much what most of us can afford. Any less is barely worthwhile. Whether you spend your entire time on the beach or head into the Kakadu for an expedition, you will have an unbelievable time.
Kiwis hate Auckland – and I can’t figure out why. It’s scenic, relatively laid-back, full of stuff to do. So why the hate from everyone outside its city limits – and even many residents?
This makes me question my travel writing. Every single day, I think about how much I liked the cities I’ve visited. And I wonder if it’s just because it’s different. Is Reykjavik that cool, or is it just the unfamiliarity? (To be fair, Icelanders seem to love it, too). Is Sydney just another sprawling metropolis of worker bees and cubicle drones, or is it truly a world-class collective of all that’s cool?
It’s easy to fall in the trap of being just so done with your homebase – especially if it’s like Phoenix … a young city trying to establish itself, all while dealing with a good four months of scorching-hot, sap-your-soul, make-you-crazy heat. Of course Wellington will seem like Paradise. Of course I’ll want to move to Monteverde, Costa Rica. And yes, Portland starts looking better and better.
Another perfect example comes from a comment in myÂ Phoenix Espresso News post: “True espresso in [sic] only in Naples.” That’s such closed-minded thinking. I’ll hear similar lofty proclamations from a lot of American travelers, especially college kids who recently wound up backpacking across Europe. Invariably, they’re just sucked into the glamor of drinking espresso in Italy versus, say, Flagstaff. They’re tasting the stamp on the passport, not the espresso.
Travel writers are also highly susceptible – we got lured into the unfamiliar. Some get so roped in that they’ll extol the virtues of even the most unlovable parts of their destinations (I now read the word “vibrant” as “ramshackle, crowded and dirty” thanks to travel writing cliches). And we want to say something that grabs your attention.
So how can anyone avoid the hyperbole? Like this: Figure out the specifics. What did you see that you wish you could bring home with you? What’s an innovation that goes unnoticed and unconsidered back home? Put the details in your writing. Be specific. It’s a lot better than just calling it great, amazing or beautiful and moving on.
I like my coffee a lot, and my coffee likes me. That means I want to taste the coffee, not have it buried under sprinkles, whipped cream and a bunch of fake pumpkin-spice flavor. I didn’t know this when we booked the tickets, but that meant Australia would be just right for me.
First, though, I had to learn to speak the language. Unless you’re at Starbucks, the names won’t be what you’re used to. And most of the good drinks are espresso-based. Now, if you like a plain americano, order a long black. If you like a latte, order a flat white. Mochas are the same, but a lot less sweet than you’re used to. And probably less bitter, so you won’t need the sugar to compensate.
We also filled up on some pastries to get ready for the Maritime Museum, which is a complete blast. We both like sailing stuff, so we have a great time touring the destroyer Vampire, submarine Onslow and a full-sized replica of Capt. Cook’s Endeavour. There are all sorts of fun displays inside, too. Frankly, there was more there than we had time for. Tickets to get on all the big boats are $18 each.
The Vampire was pretty fun because it felt like we’d stepped straight into the Disco Era. All the recreational areas were brown and “gold.” The Onslow was typical submarine fun for a guy my size … lots of hunching over to squeeze through hatches, and nearly banging my head on pipes.
The Endeavour, though … whew! Europe must’ve really sucked back in the day. I can’t imagine how bad it was – so bad that people were willing to live on bad food under brutal conditions for months at a time to get away from it. Floor to ceiling measurements were less than five feet! So you can imagine what must’ve been like crawling around there with a violently pitching deck!
We cut out to grab lunch at Thaifoon before collecting our bags and grabbing a train to Katoomba. It’s a pretty tasty Thai meal, but not as fiery as we prefer. Nothing really worth noting here.
A Quick Note for City Lovers Who Want to Hang in Sydney Awhile: One of my new inside sources who knows Sydney tells me there’s an area south of Circular Quay called New Town. Word is that’s the place to party and whoop it up. He says it’s just miles of independent cafes, pubs and shops.
Katoomba is about 65 miles away in the Blue Mountains at about 3,000 feet above see level. By the time we go there, it was already chilly. The train drops passengers off at the top of Katoomba Street, the main drag through town and out to its scenic cliffs. Best to find your hotel quickly and grab a bit to eat before everything closes.
The air in Katoomba definitely has some nip to it this time of year, but it smells clean and fresh. We were socked in with clouds, too.
We stayed at the Katoomba Mountain Lodge. It’s not exactly five-star, but it’s cheap ($60-ish a night) and clean. It’s a bit drafty, but electric blankets will keep you cozy. It’s also European style, so you don’t get your own bathroom (rooms that have bathrooms are known as ensuite, in the local lingo). No big deal, really. It also has a kitchen, TV rooms and games. We hung around watching rugby on TV before falling asleep.
Sunday, Aug. 19
Despite the chill, we got a great night of sleep. We were so well-rested that we awoke before anything was open! It was already foggy and drizzly, a perfect winter scene for a town in the mountains. We wandered the streets, waiting for cafes to open. Finally, we found one that’s open. And they serve up some awesome porridge with fruit and ricotta. The Aussies use ricotta with sweeter stuff a lot. As usual, the coffee is pretty awesome. Sorry, but I just can’t remember the name of this place. But just walk up and down Katoomba Street. You won’t go wrong.
After breakfast, we started a seven-mile hike from the lodge, down the Federal Trail and then back into town. We started out with out jackets and ponchos, and the rain got progressively heavier throughout the hike. My poncho finally ripped…I got my three bucks out of it – it survived Costa Rica and Belize, working hard in both places. Sarah’s kept on tickin’, lucky for her. We descended a really slippery thousand-foot chute called the Great Staircase and went down into a nice pine forest. We were totally deprived of the views, and the photos we’ve seen make it look truly awesome.
But I still enjoyed it … beats being in a plane next to Jon Lovitz! But holy cow, I got totally soaked. My poncho was leaking, and even my jacket was waterlogged. My mighty Vasque boots stayed dry for a good three hours, but there’s only so much they can take (these also survived complete immersion in a raging river in Belize while exploring a wet cave, but that’s another story). I was pretty relieved when we ascended the thousand feet back upward.
After that slog, we were ready to get dry. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. Sarah went as far as to buy a cheap hair dryer to get our boots dry. Then we hit the showers, and were off to the Carrington Hotel for dinner. We met up with some friendly British women and a somewhat dour Australian guy (one of the few). We all had a good chat, and the Aussie turned us on to Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe back in Sydney. Good thing we have to go back there to catch a flight! We have a great meal at the Carrington…be sure to try the Guinness stew and the sticky date pudding. Very nice!
Something weird about Ozzy spirits: Australians seem to love rum and coke (this would make travel in Australia extremely dangerous for my friend Stan, who insists that overindulging on this beverage makes him yearn for the company of hefty lasses). It’s often available pre-mixed straight from the tap. Bundaberg, the same cats who make the amazing Aussie ginger beer, is the most popular variety. It’s also sold in cans.