Australia is huge, and utterly different. It’s almost as big as the United States, or Europe, yet it has a population of just 22 million. And most of this 22 million live in suburbs strung out along the one-and-a-half-thousand-kilometre stretch of coast from Adelaide to Brisbane. The interior is vast, but virtually empty. Yet the people who call this wilderness home have been living here in much the same fashion since long before the pyramids were built.
This is a new country, but with a feeling of primeval timelessness at its heart: both elements are part of the Australian heritage and are easily experienced in its best places to visit. Like the United States, Australia is for the most part a country of immigrants. And like the United States, they have made of their country into something utterly their own. And this is a fitting complement to a land whose geographical isolation has meant that it developed a unique flora and fauna: kangaroos, koala bears, possums, black swans and literally scores of species of exotic birds-the list of uniquely Australian wildlife goes on and on.
To many who live outside Australia, and many who live in it, this is the country of beaches and beer. The ‘amber nectar’ and the ocean beaches are both famous for their foam, but standing apart from all this froth there are solid-world-class-attractions. The Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Opera House and Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock) each, in reality, stunningly surpasses the stereotyped image we have of them from travel brochures.
Then there are Australia’s lesser-known attractions, but they remain some of its best places to visit. The earliest commercial transport may have been the camel train, but nowadays the continent is crossed by two of the world’s greatest train journeys – the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, and the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
For years, Aussie chefs were known for little more than inventing peach Melba and Pavlova cake. Today their work is emerging as the finest in the Southern Hemisphere, with exotic indigenous ingredients including kangaroo and witchety grubs. The influx of New Australians from Southern Europe and South-East Asia has added a touch of exoticism and Mediterranean flare both to the food scene and life generally. Aussie wine now has middle-range vintages comparable with French and Californian counterparts. And when it comes to contemporary culture, Australian cinema has been earning the respect of audiences across the world.
Australia is a new country in an ancient setting. It seems to be timeless, yet full of surprises and constantly changing. It was said that anyone who is tired of London is tired of life. Anyone who tires of Australia is tired of living.
There are two dozen airlines at present flying into Australia. This is a highly competitive route, and you can now get better value in real terms than at almost any time in the past.
The two main entry cities are Sydney and Melbourne, though frequent international flights also arrive at Perth and Brisbane, and others at Hobart and Darwin. Most flights from Europe take a little over 20 hours (what with stops and refuelling). Direct flights from the US West Coast take around 15 hours. There’s a huge range of different flights on offer, involving all kinds of stopovers. From Europe you can stop over in the United States, Canada, South America or Hawaii, if you fly westwards. Flying the other way round the world offers even more choice, ranging from Greece and Egypt to Russia, India and South-East Asia. You can also fly out one way, and back the other, on a round-the-world ticket.
There’s a wide price range too. The better-known airlines specializing in routes to Australia (such as Qantas, British Airways, Lufthansa and United) tend to be the most expensive. But they also offer the best stopover deals. If you’re travelling from Europe and you want a bargain, London is your best bet. Wherever you are, www.skyscanner.com compares prices and offers flight deals, likewise www.travelsupermarket.com. In the northern hemisphere spring and early summer, prices sometimes plummet. At other times expect to pay as much as £200 more for your bargain deal. But if you want to fly around Christmas time, forget about the bargains. This is when the planes are fully booked, and the airlines can ask real prices. Expect to pay more than £1,000 and be sure to book well ahead if you want to travel any time during the first two weeks in December.
The cheapest time to travel to Australia from America is during the northern hemisphere summer. Return fares start from around US$1,000 (San Francisco and Los Angeles) and US$2,000 (New York). You can usually get considerable reductions on standard airline prices at discount specialists. Look on price comparison websites – see above.
There are regular flights from New Zealand to all of Australia’s major east coast cities.
Other ways to Australia
Some drive overland from Europe, through South-East Asia; a few hitch this route; and some have even been known to cycle it. If you’re planning to enter either of these exalted categories of traveller, good luck, and be sure to have a long talk with someone who has made such a trip.
In the old days an Australian ‘hotel’ meant the pub. By law, such hotels also had to have a room where worse-for-wear customers could sleep it off. Room service was provided by a barman dragging you upstairs, and your alarm call was the reverse process which ended in the street in the morning. Not surprisingly, the standard of such accommodation was not the management’s main concern. This tradition is still very much alive in Australia, though many such Australian ‘hotels’ have dispensed with rooms. (Room service now takes place without having to go upstairs.)
Such spots are known as ‘licensed’ hotels. What you are looking for is known as a ‘private’ hotel, a guesthouse or a motel.
The Aussies are great travellers, which means there will usually be somewhere to stay no matter where you end up. Even quite small centres of population will have a motel and a campsite on the edge of town, and the central ‘hotel’ (see above) will provide basic rooms.
Motels are fairly uniform – providing a standard double room with TV and bath for around A$95. The price does not include breakfast. In a motel a single room will cost around the same as a double. This is not the case with the small hotels in town and city centres, whose basic rooms are often singles. The price for a single here is around A$60, and expect to pay half as much again for a double. You’ll usually have to share a bathroom. Some serve breakfast, some don’t. If they do serve breakfast, it’s usually good and big.
The same is true of bed and breakfasts, guest houses and private hotels, where the bottom end starts typically at A$90 a night and can rise to $200 and more.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, a sensible place to start is the local bus station. Here there are often direct-dial phones to hotels, or someone behind the counter has a list of places to stay.
There are also modern chain hotels all over the country. As usual, these range from the moderately priced to the laughably overpriced. A medium-range three-star hotel double will cost you around A$150. Choose your amount of stars according to your sense of humour. Big city hotels of this type tend to be rather more expensive than those at holiday resorts. Some of the hotel chains offer attractive deals, as long as you stay at their hotels wherever you go; in fact wherever you stay, the price will drop considerably if you stay for a week.
Apart from smart hotels, there are also resorts. Or at least, they call themselves resorts. In fact, an inexpensive resort is just the same as a motel. The further upmarket you go, the more these resorts resemble their American originals – with some in spectacular settings. Facilities abound, and the bill leaps accordingly. Indeed, some of the luxury resorts on the islands off the Queensland coast are among the finest (and most expensive) millionaires’ paradises in the world.
Out in the country, many farms often run bed-and-breakfasts. These are friendly spots, and the breakfast is enough to keep a weightlifter lifting for a week.
A good budget bet in cities is to try one of the colleges. (This only works during the university vacation, of course.) As you’d expect, travelling students get priority (and also pay half price). If there’s a vacancy, expect to pay as little as A$50 for a pleasant basic room and breakfast – the latter is an opportunity for meeting up with people and swapping information.
In holiday areas especially, you’ll also find self-catering units. They cover the entire range, beginning at basic cabins. Off-season, you can sometimes get a very good bargain here if you’re prepared to do some humorous haggling.