Why You Should Visit Australia and New Zealand and How to Get Started
Overview - There are Great Reasons to Visit:
Summer 2006 was a great time to visit Australia and New Zealand. The exchange rates for the dollar were okay (though they were a mess across Europe and even in Canada). Miserable heat waves baked the US and Europe, but it was a zezty wintertime down under. If youíre an eager, fairly adventurous traveler then Australia and New Zealand are probably destinations that have been swimming in some subdirectory of your travel ambitions. Down under has lots of appeal. It's English speaking, exotic, remote, filled with crazy looking plants and animals. Many Australians combine the best character qualities from around the globe: hardiness, humor and cordiality. Aussies are justifiably famous for outgoing character, and New Zealanders (ďKiwisĒ) follow suit in their slightly more reserved manner. The Australians are masters of a vast, isolated, largely desert continent and their outlook shows independence of spirit and loads of aptitude. When the vast interior of your country is an inhospitable outback, then your ring of vibrant coastal cities are treated like causes for celebration, and for visitors this feeling is infectious. (Map of Australia.) (New Zealand photos from cloudtravel.)
Like America, the Australian national history is short (and rowdy). Perhaps for this reason the Australians, like many Americans, are a people ready to welcome strangers with an open hand and broad smile, no questions asked. They like to play around with their own lively disposition and vernacular (Australian slang dictionary). One afternoon down under amongst friendly, helpful, vigorous Australians is usually enough to charm any visitor.
The Kiwis (New Zealanders) typically have a slightly more gentrified, English disposition than the maverick Australians. The New Zealand outlook perhaps reflects that they are the smaller cousin in the Australian-New Zealand sphere of influence, and that they have more to show and more to lose than the desert-baked, walkabout Australians. Unlike the arid vastness of Australia, the Kiwis enjoy two main islands of incredible lushness that combine much of the topographical grandeur of Europe with the stunning, tropical features of the south Pacific islands (Map of New Zealand). The natural abundance of New Zealand can stop you cold: tropical beaches, rain forests, boiling hot springs, towering Alps and blocked, English-like farmland.
From half a world away it is easy to generalize the differences between New Zealand and Australia, but they are essentially different transplanted peoples making their home in similar geographic area. Australia is the land of the kangaroo, a hardy, indigenous animal that can survive traveling over deserts using the most energy conservative locomotive method known to any species on earth. By contrast, New Zealand is the land of the sheep, reliant on lots of water and grass, and transplanted wholly from the mother country (in New Zealand sheep outnumber people). Australia seems resolved with itself and its indigenous aboriginal peoples, where New Zealand seems to be looking over its shoulder back at England (and modern New Zealand has a somewhat awkward relationship with its native Maori peoples).
What finally made me visit Australia and New Zealand was the record summer heat in Europe during 2003. I had two precious weeks to use in August, but where would I go? Based on the news of heat-related deaths in Europe the southern hemisphere looked like a great solution (it is winter there when it is summer in the northern hemisphere).
European ski enthusiasts have long known the trick of turning summer into winter by training in the ski slopes of Queenstown, New Zealand. Reversing the seasons is not a motive calculated into many recreational travel plans, but it should be. What you are looking for, after all, is the chance to get away, change the scenery, to see something new.
There can be no more profound change than traveling to the other side of the earth while reversing your seasons. On top of this, you find a new world of plants and animals. School kids know about wallabies and echidnas, but those animals are just the headliners. Imagine a world where green and red parrots (ďlarkiesĒ) fly around in pairs and land in a tree above you. Imagine being awakened in the morning by a bird that sounds like a bell, or another that makes a complicated, resonant call like a concerto played on a whistle flute (birds down under page)
In short, itís completely different, yet comfortably similar to visit Australia and New Zealand. The people are different (but familiar). The food is different (but familiar). Local chefs train in Europe but insist on returning to open their own restaurants in their own home towns. A burgeoning wine industry provides a glorious, sassy collection for you to sample at a fraction of the price of these same labels offered by New Yorkís biggest liquor importers.
How hard is it to get there?
How long a flight is it to get there? The route from LA to Sydney is the most popular and therefore least expensive. Itís a 14-hour flight that can cost as little as $1,200 if you shop. Unless youíre accustomed to flying over the Pacific, traveling to Australia is a long trip in coach class that requires mental preparation. Your toleration of a journey like this definitely benefits from pharmaceutical sleep aids, if there is any way you think you can sleep during a transcontinental coach flight. Business class is a glorious improvement, but for most people it is not worth three to six times the coach fare (one often-used approach is to see if you can upgrade on miles). If you sleep at least six hours, avoid caffeine and alcohol, move and stretch during the flight and drink plenty of water, you may find the jet lag not so vicious going to Australia as you might have expected (coming the other way, back to the US, I think, itís tougher because of the special rigors of west to east time zone hopping).
Because the flight is such a serious hurdle, I advocate breaking up the trip. It greatly aids your mental preparation to take the long haul just on its own, without the psychological baggage of a connecting flight to worry about. Itís also more expensive to fly direct to Australia from the East Coast (your fare on Qantas, the Australian national airline, is significantly more if you try to fly from the east coast all under the Qantas banner, as opposed to flying to LA on another carrier). I believe the smart play is to get the cheapest flight to Los Angeles you can and take an overnight layover on the west coast to break up your journey.
It will probably be cheaper in terms of money and wear and tear to lie over in LA, but for most of us (who are not living in LA to start with) it costs two extra travel days that you could otherwise spend down under. Itís also worth underscoring that taking two different carriers necessitates plenty of time to make your connection (here Iím arguing for an overnight transfer allowance of time rather than just a few hours). The risk if you fly different carriers and cut the timing close is that your first flight can be late so you miss your connection. In the post 9-11 era air carriers are remorseless and pitiless about this kind of passenger difficulty.
Another travel tip is book a triangular route, cutting your travel distance by visiting New Zealand on your way back from Australia to the US. New Zealand is two time zones closer to the US than Australia so flying from Auckland, New Zealand back to LA is just under 12 hours. Because the cookie-cutter route is to go LA to Australia and back (plus a side trip to New Zealand), you must be creative to work your flight itinerary in three points so that your route is LA to Australia to New Zealand and then back to LA (or the reverse direction if you prefer). I think the LA, Australia, New Zealand travel triangle is the best way to see the most and minimize what is necessarily a heavy amount of flight time. Qantas is probably the best resource to try to make this itinerary happen. Try scouting the fares on Travelocity using the ďmultiple destinationsĒ option, and then call the Qantas agent and try to work through a deal.
But before you book your air ticket, consider the ancillary flights that will be necessary to tour this region of the world. There are few drivable options between the principal cities because the distances are too great. Australia and New Zealand are really vast (mileage map of Australia). You may look at a map and think surface transport is workable, but you need to calculate the real driving times based on the distances, the topography and the quality of the highways. Trains are an option, but Iím not sold on them based on either the customer quality of the service or the efficiency of the transport. (Rail page for Australia, and for New Zealand.) These are lengthy hauls, so typically by the time you make a round trip on a train you have used twice as much time as you would have flying.
As I see it, if your trip is less than three weeks you will have a definite need for air transportation between major Australian cities, as well as the major New Zealand cities. Thus, on my two-week trip I booked the following flight legs, all through Qantas, and costing $1,600 in total: Los Angeles to Sydney (Aust.), Sydney to Wellington (NZ), Wellington to Queenstown (NZ), Queenstown to Christchurch (NZ), Christchurch to Auckland (NZ) and Auckland back to Los Angeles. For comparing fares for routes internally in Australia, be sure to look at Gath Adams site, I want that flight!
How do I plan my trip?
Rather than try to best the chunky content of guidebooks like Fodor's or Frommers, or Lonely Planet, Iím going to provide key travel links to help you get going and leave details to the commercial guides. If, at this point, you are enthusiastic about looking into making a visit down under, then my essay has served its purpose. Iíll round the piece out with some general ideas of what you might want to see and how you find the tools to make that happen.
Hereís a word about travel tools to use planning a trip. When I am first looking to prioritize where I will visit in a given global location I usually look at the Michelin ďGreen GuideĒ (which you can do standing in the book store if you donít otherwise find the guide worth its pretty steep price). I think the maps at the beginning of each Green Guide that prioritize the sights are a pretty good, global way to decide on the primary points of interest. From there you overlay the practicalities of arranging transportation, and then overlay where the really great-looking accommodations are located that might cause you to adjust the route for the sake of a memorable hotel stay. From that you have a rough sketch of your route. Unfortunately, if there is a Green Guide published for Australia and New Zealand, I havenít found it (listing of Michelin guide). I felt the lack of it planning my Australia trip and wish I had found and bought one.
For my tastes, Fodorís guide is good about providing suggested itineraries based on differing lengths of trip. I also, for the most part, trust Fodorís hotel and restaurant descriptions and value them in planning a trip. A lot of this has to do with my socio-economic situation Ė when I was 21 I lived by Letís Go! travel guides that are specially geared to student budgets and preferences. Once or twice Fodorís has steered me wrong, that is true. They also donít update as scrupulously as I would like. More than once I have caught them in the verbatim re-tread of a destination or hotel descriptions over an unacceptably long span of time. But all said I agree with Fodorís choices of travel priorities and I trust their descriptions. I like the format (updated and improved for 2004) and the way they take a slice of a country and lay out a map with all the points of interest for me to track.
Once youíve got a location targeted, I would cross reference Fodorís guide to local hotels with the rating in Tripadvisor online (which includes handy reviews from common people who have visited the hotels and have something to say about it). If you are price hunting try familiarizing yourself with a few target hotels in a town and then use something like hotels.com to see who is offering a deal. Hotels.com works pretty well if you book through them, but you have to abide by their cancellation rules and they charge you a fee above and beyond what is quoted, so be warned. I tend instead to use Hotels.com as a barometer of who is running good deals and then I call the property directly and ask them to match the Hotels.com rate (you then have a direct financial relationship with the hotel, which potentially makes them more responsive to your needs, and you save the Hotels.com fee). I never use a booking service, regardless of the discount, that doesnít let me chose the exact hotel Iím booking and look it up on the web beforehand to see what it looks like and what people say about it. With the power of the web there is really few excuses for getting stuck in a dog hotel that besmirches the feel of your visit with its poor appearance and service and maybe puts you in an inconvenient or uninspiring location.
Australian travel choices:
What to see in Australia? This is a tough call because you might have a secret hankering to visit the outback or the more remote regions, whereas my focus was to skip through for a sense of Australia and then spend serious time in New Zealand. Sydney is pretty much a requirement on any list of Australia destinations. Many guide books will favor a list of Australian destinations including: Newcastle, Byron Bay, Fraser Island, world-class diving round the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Darwin, Alice Springs, Marlborough and Hobart (in Tasmania). But this list is a ridiculous simplification. You have an entire continent to consider, a task only made slightly easier by the fact that most of the good stuff is clustered at the edges. A bonobo with a handful of darts and a map will have as good a chance as you of picking great stops in Australia unless you task yourself to read up.
In the absence of a Michelin Green Guide, I find that a good overview resource is to read some of the "been there" reviews posted on epinions. Granted, this is not the most refined resource, because anybody can post just about anything, but most of the readers are conscientious and after reading a few you will see the same names start to pop up and soon you will see a pattern emerge. With the pattern established, take a look at some of the "best of" lists published by the commercial guides (Frommers has "best of" lists in a load of different catagories, hotels, restaurants, museums, beaches - here's best Australian experiences with links to other lists at the left margin.)
New Zealand travel choices:
Good destinations in New Zealand can be a harder call than Australia because the good stuff isn't as neatly collected at the coasts or near the cities. True, New Zealand cities have a remarkable spectrum of different personalities. Auckland has the feel of a clean, modern international shipping hub with bridges and waterways and ocean liners always in view. Wellington also has a maritime flavor, but it is terraced and secluded with a protected, regional feel. Christchurch is like a prim, flat, English shire town with a lazy, two-foot-deep river meandering through the center. Dunedin has a dyed-in the-wool Scottish influence while Queenstown is an extreme sport, party town full of action and youth.
To approach a trip to New Zealand you first need to assimilate the different offerings of the north and south islands. In my view most guidebooks do a poor job of helping the traveler evaluate the relative travel value of the two islands. Itís as if there is such a surfeit of great things to do that the books are doing their best to pack it all in and lose their power to discriminate between choices.
You can visit both islands, but plan on air transport if your trip is any shorter than three weeks, because the distances are considerable. Itís hard to counsel in favor of visiting just one island. The north island (map) has plenty to see, and it has Auckland, the international departure point, but the southern island has the most vibrant scenic beauty (the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed on the southern island of New Zealand.) If you want to visit the southern island alone you have to figure out your return flight, which almost certainly will require a change in Auckland, or a return to Australia before you can connect to a US flight.
The north island is warmer throughout the year and is influenced more by beaches of all kinds Ė rocky shores, black sand, white sand Ė as well as geothermal hot springs. There are mountainous features on the north island, but not to the degree of the south. The south island (map) is considerably cooler in temperature year round (Christchurch is sufficiently southern that it is where the US Antarctica programs stage their supply and transport connections with the rest of the world). The north and east coasts of the southern island of New Zealand also boast beautiful beaches, but the prominent geographic feature is the Alps that run in a spine up the mountains. (Queenstown, the sports capital of the southern island, is pictured at right.) Unlike the northern island, the southern island has glaciers and alpine vistas and numerous ski resorts. At the far, southwestern reaches of the northern island you have Fiordland, with Norwegian-class peaks rising like a wall out of the water to heights as much as a mile.
Australia and New Zealand are truly the undiscovered country of travel choices, civilized yet adventurous. The variety of people and sights and creatures and food is like few other destinations in the world. The big impediment to going is that grueling flight and the preparation necessary to focus and make concrete travel choices for such a multi-faceted destination. Both impediments are mental. If you get the bug to go, you will find the energy to surmount the challenges, and youíll thank yourself for it.
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Thanks. Happy trails.
© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:54 PM.