Lucy Millman, a student advisor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was stumped. "Even though I'm a pretty experienced traveler and trip planner," she wrote to us, "I've had a really hard time getting a handle on Australia." She felt overwhelmed while researching options for a trip in November with her husband, Gary, and 18-year-old son, James. "The country is so huge. How do we tackle it?"
Excellent question. Australia is only a tad smaller than the continental U.S., and trying to see everything isn't feasible, even on a long visit. Many first-timers make the mistake of cramming too many sights into a short window. They spend a majority of their time dizzily keeping up the pace.
We cautioned the Millmans about overdoing things, asking them how they normally enjoy seeing new places. James prefers a loose travel style. "My mom makes a list of things she wants to see, like museums and sights," he said. "Then we leave lots of time for exploring the neighborhoods. We're into playing it by ear." Lucy hoped to discover the Australia that her brother talked about after visiting in the 1990s. "He said it reminded him of the U.S. back in the 1950s -- a kinder, gentler world." Rather than wasting time checking out tourist traps, Lucy wanted to "look in windows, absorb local culture, find odd restaurants."
Doing that requires time to wander. The Millmans are going to Australia for three weeks, and we encouraged them to settle on four destinations. Sydney was a given, since the whole reason for the trip was so Gary, who works for Rotary International, could attend a conference just outside the city. Lucy and James can use passes on Sydney's commuter line, CityRail, to explore while Gary works. The Millmans also planned to visit Brisbane, the home of a family friend, and Heron Island, to stay at the rustic but upscale Voyages Resort on the Great Barrier Reef. At nearly $400 a night, it was a splurge, but the stories Lucy had heard -- no cars, shallow reefs right off the beach -- made the expense worthwhile.
That allowed for one more stop. They chose Melbourne, which jibed with their interests and style of travel because of its old alleyways, cafés, bookstores, and boutiques. The Millmans might have added trips to the Outback and Ayers Rock, the beaches and forests around Perth in the west, or to the Top End and its crocodiles and national parks, but that would have required brief visits at each stop; they preferred to linger at the places they really wanted to see. "We can always go back one day," Lucy reasoned.
Even though all of the Millmans' chosen destinations were in the eastern part of Australia, driving between them was impractical. Sydney to Melbourne takes around 9 hours (more like 12 if they go along the coast), and Sydney to Brisbane is 12 hours by car or train. So they decided to fly. One option was the Qantas AussieAirPass, which includes round-trip airfare from the U.S. plus three flights within Australia for one price. But the AirPass isn't suited to everyone. The trip to Heron Island requires flights to Gladstone, which isn't covered by the AirPass. We told them about three of Australia's low-cost airlines: Virgin Blue, Jetstar, and Regional Express. Virgin Blue had the best price and schedule from Sydney and Melbourne: $60 each way, versus $81 on Qantas. They can also shave off unnecessary backtracking by beginning their trip with a flight into Sydney but flying home from Brisbane. The unusual itinerary often costs the same as a simple round trip.
With the logistics sorted and an easy pace established, we set about directing the family to a few sights that, as Lucy requested, "most tourists wouldn't see." One was Luna Park, a Coney Island-style amusement park from the 1930s on one of Sydney's most exclusive stretches of waterfront (see "Surprise!" below). For Melbourne, we suggested they head to the university district of Carlton and the eclectic Melbourne Museum. Inside are displays they'll only find Down Under, including the stuffed remains of racehorse and national icon Phar Lap, an exhibit on why people pass gas, and a set from the soap opera Neighbours. (Pop star Kylie Minogue began her career on the show.) For more Australiana, we pointed the Millmans to the fifth floor of the State Library of Victoria, where there's the bullet-dented homemade armor worn by legendary outlaw Ned Kelly as well as several items related to explorers Burke and Wills, who perished on an adventure in the Outback in 1861.
The Millmans like the idea of checking out neighborhoods and seeing how real people go about their days, and Sydney and Melbourne are great cities for casual exploring. Balmain, on a peninsula west of Sydney's city center, used to be a tough industrial neighborhood filled with dockland workers, but is now known for its Victorian mansions and one of the best views of the Harbour Bridge. Darling Road, with a great assortment of restaurants, cafés, pubs, and tidy storefronts, is the main drag -- and the kind of place that makes people wish they could move to Sydney. In Melbourne, the bookstores, clothing boutiques, and old-fashioned bakeries lining Acland Street, in the seaside resort area of St. Kilda, are certainly worth a visit. Two bohemian neighborhoods in Melbourne -- Fitzroy and Collingwood, north of Victoria Parade around Smith and Brunswick streets, respectively -- date to the 19th century and are some of the oldest streetscapes in Australia. Writers, artists, and musicians have called the area home for years, and many of their small, old houses still have their original cast-iron balconies.
Lucy told us that James, who spent the summer as a short-order cook, has a passion for food: "On his 10th birthday, his uncle started taking him on food-themed trips -- to Kansas City for barbecue, to New Orleans for Cajun, to Vancouver for Chinese." Thanks to a wave of immigration from eastern Asia, Australia's main cities host neighborhoods with authentic restaurants and grocery stores dealing in types of produce that James would never encounter in Illinois. Sydney's Chinatown, which is really more like a pan-Asian district, is just west of the main commuter-train station. The best bet for exotic cuisine in Melbourne is Victoria Street, a five-minute tram ride northwest of downtown. In both areas, James can take his pick of Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Chinese food. "We definitely have to go there, then," said James.
We also tipped off James about a couple of places to eat that are cherished by Sydneysiders. Bills is a homey, open-kitchen restaurant run by Bill Granger, a local celebrity whose cookbooks are best sellers. Breakfast is served at a communal dining table; the ricotta hotcakes are light and sweet, and the scrambled eggs are the world's creamiest. Doyles, on the sand in ritzy Watsons Bay, is famous for its fish, especially barramundi and John Dory. Getting there is part of the fun -- from downtown Sydney they'll board a commuter ferry and take in the most spectacular harbor in the world for $8 each, round trip. We recommended they come for lunch -- the last ferry leaves Watsons Bay at about 6 p.m.
The Millmans didn't need help with accommodation for most of their trip. Gary's employer was handling the hotel near Sydney, their friend would put them up in Brisbane, and they had taken care of reservations at Heron Island.
The only place where they needed lodging advice was Melbourne. There are good values in the city's center -- the Travelodge and the Ibis, for example, are in well-located high-rises with terrific views. Another lodging category that's popular Down Under is the apartment hotel. It operates just like a standard hotel, with similar amenities (concierges, fitness centers), but units come with an extra sleeping area (for James) and a kitchen (also for James).
A handful of apartment-hotel chains operate across the country, and each one has a presence in Melbourne's CBD, or central business district. They include Saville Suites, Medina, Quest, and Quay West. This lodging category is so popular that it's even been invaded by independent boutiques. In Melbourne, The Lyall is a luxury apartment hotel with a spa and champagne bar. Since the drinking age is 18, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity for James to sample his first legal alcoholic drink under the watchful eye of his parents. We imagine the Millmans raising flutes of Vintage Brut, made by local vineyard Chandon, and toasting their easy-paced trip Down Under.
The Millmans will be able to ride as many of Luna Park's amusements as their stomachs can handle -- free of charge, thanks to day passes courtesy of park administrators (a $30 value per person). They'll want to keep an eye out for the Joy Wheel, a spinning disk that, as it speeds up, gently throws riders to the side. The last person holding on gets bragging rights.
How Was Your Trip?
"We had a fantastic time," says Ken Robertson, who we coached in April on a trip to Alaska with wife Cathy and their triplet sons (pictured outside the plane that brought them to a glacier in Denali). "Your suggestions helped us and made the vacation so much more memorable."