Exploring Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti: Kangeroos, Wombats, and Koala Bears amidst Stunning Scenery
"Exploring Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti: Wintering Down Under," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, May 28, 2006, 7-8.
Australia and New Zealand are easy countries to visit because the host countries speak English and are friendly to all visitors, and especially Americans whom they credit with defending them successfully in World War II against a possible Japanese invasion. They are also countries with historical narratives of how the Europeans displaced the original settlers. Frequent encounters with nomadic young Americans who take a year off after university or a year or two sabbatical from work and who become temporary waiters, cooks and gardeners also give travelers a sense that they are not far from home.
In my only prior visit to Australia in 1993, I had given several lectures in Sydney, Canberra (the capital) and Melbourne and stayed about three weeks. That the year before I met Marcia Jacobson, my second wife, and her desire to see the South Pacific was matched by my desire to return, especially to Sydney, and to visit New Zealand for the first time. As on my last trip we arrived in the later part of Australia summer and, on the early legs of our trip, had some hot weather in Sydney and some hot and muggy weather in Cairns. We began our travels with Air Tahiti's 23-hour flight (to Sydney. Because the flight had only 60 passengers to Tahiti we had a good deal of sleeping space during the thirteen hour fifteen minute flight; after little more than an hour transit we changed plans and began the 8 hour second leg to Sydney. Except for the food, which was the usual economy, dining experience that one has come to expect even on flights of epic length, the service and the comfort level on the newish planes of Air Tahiti Nui was above average and each seat had its own TV. Crossing the International Dateline, we left 5:15 pm Saturday and arrived exhausted at 7:30 am Monday. Since for me sleeping and not sleeping on a plane have similar effects in terms of rest, I subscribe to the take a nap theory on arrival rather than the gut it out to bedtime theory. We took something like 14 flights on Air Tahiti, Quantas, and Air New Zealand and the service was better and the flights prompter than on domestic carriers in our recent experience.
Australians are unusually friendly and helpful. They are eager to have you enjoy their country. They are proud of those who excel beyond their borders. For example, their focus on the Academy awards was on their own film figures like Ang Lee (?), whom they consider one of their own. Many are doubtful about American foreign policy and its embrace by its current conservative government (paradoxically, the conservative party is the Liberal party). I spoke to a Labor senator from Tasmania who feels that the government's economic policy is too stringent in terms of cutting back overtime and extra pay on weekends in both the public and private sectors. Labor is probably to the left of much of the American Democratic party. A continuing issue is the plight of the Aborigines, the original inhabitants, and how to narrow the gap between their standard of living and the Europeans, Asians, and other immigrants and address the social problems of a minority culture without destroying the indigenous culture.
I have a penchant for cities on the water—San Francisco, Vancouver, Barcelona. The glory of Sydney, a prosperous city of more than 4000000 people is its location on the South Pacific. Australia's summer takes places in the months of our winter, although Sydney never gets cold by Northeastern standards.
The morning sun glistening on the water with the statuesque Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, a wonder of contemporary architecture, in the background, is one of the great urban vistas. The beautiful surf of Bondi beach compares with public beaches anywhere. When touched by a bright sun, the juxtaposition of sandstone Victorian architecture and harbor vistas is unforgettable. I highly recommend one of the guided Harbor Cruises that are offered by a number of companies, including the Sydney Ferries at Circular Key. The "guide" is an audio over a loudspeaker system but seeing Sydney from the water gives a sense of what Sydney has been and is now.
But it is the magnificence of Sydney brilliantly and gorgeously lit up at night that arouses the senses and lingers in our memory. With a splendid cruise ship sitting in the harbor and the city lights on both sides, what can compare to a late summer walk—along the Circular Quay with its seaside restaurants to Opera House and the and the Harbour Bridge. One thinks of Hong Kong and Shanghai, but Sydney's is a more tactile beauty? Playing at the opera was an innovative physically and visually pleasing new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, one supplemented by an Australian theatre company Legs on (and?) the Wall, a company clearly influenced by Cirque Soleil. An Architectural wonder opened in 1973, the Opera House was designed by architect Jern Utzon and later somewhat refurbished With a theatrical and convert series, it is the center of Sydney's cultural life although there are many other activities, including the annual Gay festival when hundreds of thousands gays gather from around the world for a giant party in February, a party I saw during my first visit 13 years ago.
Sydney's architecture is a combination of 19th century sandstone and contemporary. Many of the sites are centrally located. One important sight is the 1898 sandstone Queen Victoria Building—now the site of expensive shops, particularly the upper floors-- which was once a railroad station. Within is a two ton jade coach made in China and the immense Royal Clock that chimes from 9am to 9pm with four separate tableaux.
Koala at zoo in the Blue Mountains, Australia
Sydney has a wonderful zoo, which I visited on my previous trip. As part of a day drive to the Blue Mountains with one of my former graduate students, we stopped at Featherdale Wildlife Park to see Wombats, Kangaroos, Wallabies, Koalas, Fairy Penguins, Dingos, and other assorted creatures. In the Blue Mountains, we enjoyed some spectacular views at Winchester Falls and the Three Sisters mountain Peak.
Melbourne is a handsome city with beautiful gardens, the Yarra River, and a population of about 3.5 million and it is more cosmopolitan and diverse than it was during my last visit. We were there as the Commonwealth Games began and the Queen arrived. Among the sites I have enjoyed in two visits are the neo-gothic St. Patrick's cathedral, Fitzroy Gardens, the King's Domain Gardens featuring the moving Shrine of Remembrance memorial to Australian war dead, and the impressive and stately nineteenth century architecture in buildings such as State Houses of Parliament, the Town Hall, and imposing State Library—with a fine exhibit about the history of Australia--and the Victorian Arts Centre which is the counterpart of the Sydney Opera house in terms of hosting major performances of ballet, classical music, and opera. We also were fortunate enough to see a parade celebrating the opening of the Commonwealth games. Also going on was Melbourne's local festival day called Moomba, and on March 13th, Australia's Labor Day, a national Holiday.
The flight from Sydney to Cairns takes 2 and ½ hours. Cairns is the setting for journeys to Great Barrier Reef. It is a pleasant place whose main activity is tourism and where prices are heavily inflated for less than extraordinary experiences. A nice activity is a walk on the esplanade, which overlooks an enormous free swimming pool to compensate for the inability to swim in the estuary due to jellyfish, one of which stung me ion Green Island. Our days were punctuated by rain showers of various length which is a feature of March, part of the rain season.
I advise a tour to an island or pontoon closer to the Great Barrier Reef rather than to Green Island, where tour took us. Were it not for a trip on a glass bottom boat where we saw some beautiful coral reef, the trip to Green Island would have been a complete rather than a partial dud. The promised snorkeling from the shore was disappointing and the island is basically a tourist amusement park. Most tours take their clients to a pontoon on the reef from which they can snorkel and use an underwater observatory.
Wallabies in zoo in Cairns, Australia
From Cairns, we bought a train trip on an old-fashioned train called Kuranda Scenic Railway that winds its way up the mountain to the small tourist village of Kuranda and took the Sky Train back over the rain forest for a pricey 99 Australian. One can from there go to a native village, but we spent out time enjoying arts and artifacts, some Aboriginal and at a small zoo called the Kohola Gardens where Marcia had her picture taken holding a Kohala bear and we fed kangaroos and Wallabies, one of which was carrying a joey which periodically came out of the mother's pouch for a look around. Kuranda also has a butterfly sanctuary, Venom zoo, and Bird World.
The most important art museum in Sydney is the Art Gallery of New South Wales which had a fine exhibit entitled Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, an exhibit which by American blockbuster standards was rather small, containing just one painting per artist, but which nonetheless included word class works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Velasquez. The permanent collection is somewhat spotty in terms of European masterworks, but Asian holdings from Chinese and Japanese to Southeast India on display are quite wonderful and are displayed impressively with information on the walls and on large individual cards that can be borrowed while browsing. In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art, located next to the Circular Quay, seemed on both visits 13 years apart, somewhat idiosyncratic and hardly viewer friendly to those not steeped in such art. With that codicil, I enjoyed an exhibit of selected works from the collection, even though I did not think the curator was building an audience with his mode of exhibiting the works and the obscure narrative that he chose to accompany the exhibit in lieu of real contextual information.
Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria had a wonderful exhibit of the 19th century French impressionist Pissarro. Its European holdings have some highlights, including a nice Rembrandt, and it has fine Asian holdings.
Many museums are free but charge for the special exhibitions, in the Pissarro case about $11 American and $4 more for an excellent audio.
Australian Hotels and Food
Our Sydney hotel was the recently renovated Sofitel Wentworth, a 400-room hotel used by tourist groups and business travelers. Our first standard room had a stall shower and lacked a bathtub, but we moved to one more to our liking. One rule: Never accept the first room offered. The new room was reasonably satisfactory but hardly elegant for a supposed five star hotel. It did have the important plus of adequate lighting for reading, but the room—and the TV--were small and service unsteady. The use of a gym cost $10 and it did not provide CNN—a much better foreign product than its American counterpart-- on the TV which I, as someone who follows the news, considers a major minus which can be replaced by CNBC. Decoupling is very much part of the modern hotel business, and guest are charged for almost anything. A modest bottle of Evian at the minibar was $8 in Australian dollars (which recently has been fluctuating between .75 and .80 of a dollar).
Our Cairns hotel, the Oasis, is a modest nondescript 1950ish resort with a large swimming pool and close to the esplanade, but finally is a tourist hotel without any distinguishing style. Our Melbourne hotel was a Radisson a bit off the town center but with good service and nicely appointed rooms as well as CNN and complimentary use of the internet, although not complimentary hot wiring. The breakfast was one of the poorest we have had—tasteless croissants, few breads, no rolls-- on nine tours with a variety of companies and scores of trips on our own.
Experienced travelers who use tours either for exotic venues or, as in this case, to avoid the time-consuming activity of planning a long trip, know that tour guests are the hotel's orphans. Contrary to what one might expect, a guest booking individually often has less leverage in terms of room location, amenities, and upgrades.
Australian—and New Zealand-- restaurants serve large portions and often splitting an entry while also ordering one appetizer, a side dish and/or desert worked well for us. Ethnic food is often a good choice in both Sydney and Melbourne. Dinner in Sydney's Chinatown is a good value and a chance to see one of its ethnic enclaves. Any of the restaurants on Dixon Street or Sussex street is a good value, whether ordering their basic tourist dinner at 12 US or a la carte. In Melbourne's Chinatown we sampled Malay restaurant called Banana Palm and had a particularly delicious duck dish. We were less successful at a local Greek Restaurant in Sydney, chosen illogically on the basis of my memory of great Greek food in Melbourne 13 years ago. In Cairns, we ate a local fish called Barramundi at Barnacle Bill's Seafood—restaurant recommended by locals and guidebooks where the prices were reasonable considering the quality and where Bill himself welcomes you----but restaurants in the esplanade, including Barnacle Bill's, were selling clawless lobsters for 105 Australian dollars and mud crabs for 79.
In both New Zealand and Australia, deserts and breads are rarely up to American or European standards, even at the pricier restaurants. Moreover, restaurants consider bread a side dish and charge accordingly. Extra cups of coffee are also charged in both countries.
Australians are helpful and generous people and want you to like them and their country. Casual acquaintances are hospitable and will offer to drive you places, make phone calls give you lifts and help make arrangements. They enjoy speaking to strangers and are unusually forthcoming in sharing their lives. They love their sports teams, a quality accentuated by the oncoming Commonwealth exam.
New Zealand is less part of what I call the International political than Australia, and much less part of the international cultural conversation than Melbourne or, especially, Sydney. But the scenery is magnificent and the country still relatively unspoiled for tourists.
Putting far less than its resources than many nations into armaments and led by a woman prime minister, New Zealand has about 4 million people, five provinces in each of the two major islands. Its people are among the most affable and welcoming in the world. Auckland in the North Island is the largest city with a population of about 1.3 million. There are 120 members of Parliament--which convenes in Wellington, the capital-- of which 100 are elected; for every five elected another is added.
Sheep Farm, New Zealand
The major industries are sheep and diary farming--with the latter becoming more dominant—with beef cattle playing an increasing role. New Zealand is suffering from emigration to Australia whose average income is 32 per cent higher. Meat and wool prices are down and farm income have been hammered. On the other hand, with housing prices soaring, household net worth is up over 50 per cent in the last three years.
Sports are very important---especially cricket, rugby, and golf. New Zealanders—who all themselves Kiwi after the flightless bird that `is indigenous to any place else—are proud of their national teams and Olympic and Commonwealth games. The South Island was quite cool, in the forties and fifties Fahrenheit. We bought a few beautiful wool sweaters and regularly enjoyed terrific ice cream and the beauty of its public gardens.
Christchurch and Queenstown
In New Zealand we were outsourced to a company called Pan Pacific. Our nine hour form Christchurch to Queenstown bus ride included some compelling but stark scenery once we reached the mountains—the maximum height was about 3000 feet-- after our lunch in stop Omarama. Winding our way through the heights, we didn't see much vegetation in the high areas.
We arrived late at night in Christchurch on South Island and had only one full day before leaving by bus for three nights in which we used Queenstown as our base. With a population of about 400,000 Christchurch is the largest city of South Island and Canterbury's provincial capital, but it is quiet and quaint city. We especially enjoyed the Botanical Gardens and kayaking on the Avon, the river running through Christchurch. Our explorations included Christchurch (Anglican) Cathedral and the lively area in front of the Cathedral known as Cathedral Square where vendors and chess games get the attention of visitors. We visited the Canterbury Museum that has a strong historical collection focusing on the region and the Arts Center, a complex of exhibits—one on the late Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Ernest Rutherford-- and shops located in the old Gothic revival buildings of the University of Canterbury. Our personal favorite was the modern building housing the Christchurch Art Gallery, a fine regional museum featuring New Zealand and European art. Queenstown overlooks Lake Wakatipu, backed by the stately Remarkables mountain range. The scenery recalls the paintings Adirondacks and the sublimity of the Hudson River school.Queenstown is a resort community dependent on tourist trade. Indeed, it is a kind of New Zealand Disneyland offering amusements, excursions, outdoor activities, and daredevil sports like bungee jumping. By New Zealand and Australian standards Queenstown can be pricey, although we found the restaurants excellent. On our full day we took the gondola up the mountain to see the view of the city, spent a few hours at the privately owned Kiwi Birdlife Park (about $18US)—a bird zoo with some Maori cultural sites where we saw 3 kiwis—nocturnal flightless and featherless bird which lay enormous eggs in relation to their size—and a tuatara, an indigenous reptile. We also walked in the Queenstown's botanical gardens.
Milford Sound with Glacier, New Zealand
From Queenstown took an all day round trip via bus to Milford Sound where we took a boat cruise to see fiord overlooking the mouth of the Tasman Sea. In the boat and bus we saw the trip's most spectacular scenery in the form of the magnificent topography—extraordinarily steep mountains, the Cleddau River chasm, impressive waterfalls-- of the 3 million acre Fiordland National Park that includes some of the Southern Alps.
We also spent one night on a farm visit in Fairlie. Several families hosted groups of about four on their family farm for dinner, breakfast, and an overnight. Our hosts Jenny and Steve Crone were an interesting couple in their late forties whose large farm of nearly 2000 acres was home to 2500 sheep and 200 cows. We learned a good deal about farming life and a little something about political attitudes. While the food was more homespun than gourmet, we thought—and so did many of our fellow travelers--that the stay was a trip highlight.
Auckland feels more like an urban city than the rest of New Zealand. Its harbors are its commercial and aesthetic lifeline. It has wonderful vistas from several perspectives, including Mount Eden and Westhaven marina. We enjoyed two excellent museums, the Auckland Art Gallery, which featured an exhibit entitled "Art & the 60s" originating in Tate Britain, and the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The latter, despite its limited title, has a scintillating Maori exhibit as well as a live show several times a day and several other exceptional exhibits including a small but moving one of the Holocaust and survivors who emigrated to New Zealand.
New Zealand Hotels and Food
While the Carleton hotel in Auckland was quite dine, our other New Zealand hotels were the typical middle price tourist hotels. comfortable but hardly elegant. The Novotel Garden in Queenstown had reasonably nice rooms and CNNN but has neither air-conditioning nor a gym; I imagine on hot days it would be uncomfortable. Novotel is the next level of the French owned Accor group of which Sofitel is the flagship. Our Christchurch hotel, the Corthorne Durham, had a more modest breakfast, but did have a serviceable fitness facility.
We hade some fine meals in New Zealand. Most notable was Cin Cin on Quay which justifiably advertises itself as providing "cutting edge cuisine" and features elaborate preparations of seafood as well as other notable dishes. In Christchurch, We had a wonderful dinner featuring lamb dishes at a French restaurant Le Bon Bolli near Cathedral Square perhaps the best of the trip. My Queenstown recommendations include in order of rising price: Cow (delicious designer pizza and pasta, Dux Lux (eclectic, including delicious Thai seafood curry and Boardwalk (upscale, fine rack of lamb). Bread in New Zealand was less than wonderful, with Boardwalk's the best. We had a fine steak dinner at Tony's Lorne Street in Auckland.
We bought a 22-day package from Smartours. We chose this tour because dinners were not included and we had many optional days. While it added to the cost, I found the lack of group dinners a major plus. We went our own way spending time with friends in Sydney, making our own arrangements on optional days, and sampling the local cuisine at dinner. Like most tours, this one included an ample if unexciting breakfast that varied from the barely adequate to quite respectable.
This tour worked because most of the travelers were reasonably tolerant people. Our fellow travelers, including many widows, were not the most traveled group that we have met on tours; nor were they the youngest. Some were very anxious about bonding; others were more independent and pursued their own agenda. At 64 we were probably at or slightly below the mean in age. For a tour group made up of diverse personalities with different backgrounds, the group—or most of it--was relatively tolerant of one another and generally good-natured, although groups break into cliques. When touring with a group, one spends more time with tour members than one spends with family members—and sometimes with close friends--within a calendar year.
Smartours used to include more day trips, but now seems to charge for most of them as optionals on so-called "leisure days." Their optional are often excursions into the countryside or various meals that used to be part of the included trip. But museums and musical and cultural events were omitted from the itinerary, both included and optional, and I considered this a major problem. The best of our tours tell a story about a civilization —India, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia—and this tour lacked an ongoing narrative about history and culture. This particular trip neglected museums and did not arrange any cultural events, such as an optional trip to the Sydney opera to see a performance.
Smartours takes a package of x days and collapses into x minus three days that creates good value and a fast pace. We flew 13 segments, although some were because our Qantas flights seem to begin and end in Sydney and our Air New Zealand flight between Auckland and Tahiti stopped in the Cook Islands at Raretonga.
Smartours included a few irrational travel plans—flying to Melbourne from Cairns via Sydney and to Melbourne to Christchurch via Sydney. Both these flights--only two days apart--killed lots of time that could have been spent in more profitable endeavors. The explanation, I am virtually sure, is that Smartours gets a better price that way since it minimizes one-way flight. Indeed, the answer to such questions on tours is, "Follow the Money."
Arriving on early on a Monday morning when occupancy is low the tour company might have been able to arrange for rooms to be ready, but this company is not called Smartours for nothing. My wife felt that the tour was cruel and unusual punishment.
Instead of taking us to our hotel for a nap, we were taken on a four-hour city tour as we made our way from the airport to the hotel. Smartours is the name of a very smart tour company that combines two bus rides—the transit to hotel with a city tour that gave us a quick overview and a few photo ops and ended with an hour for lunch at Bondi beach.
Bus trips on tours mean the tour guide-- and on the several obligatory long bus days in New Zealand the bus driver-- have a captive audience to speak incessantly for hours disrupting reading, sleeping, and conversation. It is as if instead of getting a set time of 75 minutes twice a week, I would have 9 hours to speak about whatever came into my head instead of focusing on my subject. Far two few minutes on the bus are devoted to the political system, the health system of the educational system. Most passengers are so bored with bad jokes and information that could be digested into one fiftieth of the words that they fall sleep rather than, as I restrain myself from doing, begging for quiet. Bus trips also include shopping opportunities at shops where the guides and bus drivers get a percentage of sales; we bought some wool New Zealand sweaters not far from Christchurch at a shop called the Tin Shed.
Diana Green, our fifty-six year old guide, is a heavy set, reasonably competent if on occasion semi-organized women who has a positive attitude but when under stress had bad disposition. This is not a lucrative field and usually draws upon those living in the countries visited. She toes the party line and tells us how great the trip's value is and how wonderful hotels are, whether they are or not. Her mother was an actress and she enjoys performing songs and poems on the bus, sometimes when quiet might have been preferred. She characteristically raves about every hotel, restaurant, shop along the bus route, and bus driver. She lives in the land of hyperbole. She actually described a bathroom stop on the way to Milford Pond as having 'the best toilets along the road in New Zealand." I thought, maybe the world.
After a somewhat hectic sightseeing journey, I often enjoy a few more casual days. What could be a more splendid coda than a few days in the South Pacific in two of the islands in the French Polynesian island group of Tahiti, especially given my interest in Gauguin! An added benefit was the interruption of what would have been with a change in LA a 24-hour flight home from Auckland to New York. We stayed one night in a the Intercontinental hotel in Papeete before taking a ferry to the Intercontinental resort in Moorea where we stayed a few nights and enjoyed swimming, the hotel's dolphin and sea turtles areas, kayaking and glorious ocean and lagoon views punctuated by greenery and mountains.
IF YOU GO:Restaurants: Chinatown in Sydney and Melbourne Cairns: Barnacle Bill's (103 The Esplanade0 Christ Church: Le Bon Bolli (Montreal and Worcester streets) Queenstown: Cow (Cow Lane), Dux Lux (14 Church St.), Boardwalk (Steamer Wharf) Auckland: Cin Cin on the Quay (99 Quay St.), Tony's (Lorne Street)