No sooner did the ink on my New Zealand passport stamp dry than I had to fly to Australia, where I launched my new book, “Dinner at Nelson’s, A Collection of Cuisine & Conversation.” Sales there will determine the subsequent US distribution later this year, so I was eager to get out and “spruik!”
My first time on Richard Branson’s new “V Australia” was a happy surprise. Affordable, comfortable business class seats combined with excellent service from an attentive staff made the long journey an easy one. Watch a movie, read a book, enjoy some good Aussie food and wine…and wake up bright and early (planes can’t land before 6 a.m. lest they disturb Sydney-siders), ready to clear Customs and start the day with a Harbour-side brunch. The avian wildlife is always the first thing to strike me: lorikeets, cockatoos and kookaburras abound. But, beware of aggressive magpies! Some cyclists even wear spiked helmets to fend off the squawking divebombers when they’re protecting their nests. You don’t have to venture far out of the city limits to encounter native wildlife…you might see an Ibis scavenging for discarded fast food, a wombat dashing across the street, or a kangaroo sunbathing on a golf course. Of course, a trip to the magnificent Toranga Zoo will ensure that you see everything from koalas to emus in a safe environment.
On past visits, I’ve done most of the activities on the “Aussie Oprah Itinerary”…the Harbour Bridge climb, a visit to Luna Park, the Rocks, the famed Opera House and Botanical Gardens. As with most of my travels, I most enjoy seeing the sights from a local’s perspective. Enjoying a latte at SOUS LE SOLEIL, shopping in the funky little galleries of Darlinghurst or having a lamb barbeque with friends is my idea of fun.
A sunny Sunday brunch at Whale Beach will help anyone recover from jet lag, so from there I braced myself for the rigors of the book tour. Flying to Melbourne on Jet Star was a snap…domestic flights are no-frills and not always punctual, but the skies are definitely friendly and reminiscent of the “good old days” when air travel was easier. From check in to baggage claim…even renting a car with GPS (remember, they drive on the left side of the road and there are hidden speed cameras EVERYWHERE!) is simple stuff.
In Melbourne, I stayed at the trendy new boutique hotel, The Olsen. Its popular restaurant, Blue Bottle (named after the menacing sea nettle) is a comfortable place to hang out or meet friends. In fact, anything’s better than being stuck in that city’s terrible traffic! If you can get around by any other form of transportation than automobile, do so! Then you can drink in their beautiful architecture, botanical gardens, the view of the Yarra River and the workouts of the impressive specimens who comprise Melbourne’s Storm Rugby League. Shop at Myer Department store then visit Red Spice Road restaurant for a Thai feast.
Next stop was balmy Brisbane, an area still recovering from recent flood damage. Oddly enough, you’d never know it. Everything I saw was lush and beautiful. Magnificent landscapes and small neighborhoods connected by charming bistros, bookstores and shoppes abound. The best coffee I enjoyed during my stay was discovered at Belle Epoque, adjacent to my hotel, The Emporium. The locals, too, are noteworthy: especially warm and welcoming to Yankee tourists.
Making my way back to Sydney, I opted to forego a hotel and stay with friends. Not only was it a “homey” way to catch up with them, it’s the idea way to experience the Aussie lifestyle as a local. Hanging my hat in the comfortable suburb of Roseville provided me a quick commute into the city, easily accessible by public transportation, as well as a relaxing environment. Hit Manly or Balmoral Beach swimming, sunning (wear sunscreen), shopping and dining. I highly recommend the gourmet pizzas at Hugo’s Restaurant! If you’re looking for nightlife, the crowd at the Victoria Room will stimulate you as much as their delicious menu…and it’s right in the thick of all the packed nightclubs and bars.
I stuck mostly to cozier pursuits like taking in a cricket match…sampling the meat pies at Harry’s Pie Stand along the wharf at Woolloomooloo (where Russell Crowe has a waterfront pad)…and taking a sunrise run along world-famous Bondi Beach, as all the surfers caught the morning waves. But the real highlight, in spite of all the other festivities, was a visit to St. Lucy’s school for special needs children. They have a creative approach to the care and education of their challenged students and spending a bit of time there getting to know the kids was simultaneously humbling and inspiring. Check ‘em out: http://stlucys.nsw.edu.au Designating some “good deed doing” may not be on one’s standard business or holiday itinerary, but it can dramatically improve the experience! The next time you’re planning a trip, why not Google some local charitable organizations along with hotels and sightseeing destinations? You may just be in store for something unexpectedly wonderful!