"Going downtown?" he asked. "Here, take my car!"
I've traveled to over 80 countries, but I've never met a friendlier person than this Australian.
My car-lender, Ian, was the next-door neighbor to a home we were house-sitting over Christmas holidays in St. Kilda's, Melbourne. We had just met on the street literally 5 minutes before, and little did he know the risks he was taking -- I had never driven on the "wrong" side of the road before in my life. But Ian didn't care. He wasn't using his car that afternoon, so why leave it sitting in the street?
This was the first of many encounters that left my family touched, moved and inspired by the people of Australia. The next was our trip to Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park, where our guide Michael could hardly contain his excitement to take us on an evening walk through the game lands.
The kangaroos were so tame they hopped right up to my children and ate grain out of their hands while we petted them. There was something so exotic and sublime about these animals that my photos caught the joy on my kids' faces, and I confess to even tearing up a bit.
But the wind sucked the tears right out of our eyes at Nobbies Point on Phillip Island the next day.
The wind blew gale force even during a stunning, sunny day as we looked out across beautiful multi-hues of green moss as the raging ocean waves crashed into the coast. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to witness the raw power and beauty of Nature's hand.
We drove back into Melbourne that evening and had the best thali-style Indian food I've had outside of India at the Flora Indian Restaurant, across from the train station.
When we parked in front of our house-sit that night, I began telling yet another neighbor about our experience when he mentioned he was driving up to his cottage on Gough's Bay the next day, and he invited us to stay overnight with his family on our drive to Sydney. What better way to see Australia then accompanied by its people? We drank Aussie beer and told stories over The Barbie (no shrimp on it), then woke up the next morning to a half-dozen exotic birds at the feeder on our balcony. They were so tame they sat upon my son and sang to him.
We arrived at Sydney on New Year's Eve and dropped our bags at the Park Hyatt Sydney which has an amazing harbor vista and super-friendly, service-oriented staff.
We then took in the stunning views from Sydney Tower and the Royal Botanic Gardens, but we had a serious blast riding the Oz Tours jet boat in the Sydney Harbor, right past the Opera House and famous Harbour Bridge. Lunch at the Astor Room Cafe was a highlight of our trip -- such a lovely esthetic and pampered service were really a treat.
That night, we were blessed with a view of that same Opera House from the roof of a high-rise apartment building as the New Year was counted down with stunning fireworks.
I thought that old tradition of everyone kissing everyone at the party had died with the 1970's, but in Australia kissing is alive and well!
We did the obligatory tour of the architecture of the Opera House the next day, but it was anything but boring. My wife marvelled at how the "multiple orange slices" of concrete supported each other to thrust into the sky with such simple majesty. We bought tickets to the most kid-friendly opera we could find: The Magic Flute from the "Opera Australia!" series had sets and costumes designed by the same person who did the memorable Liong King on Broadway, and our kids were absolutely transfixed by their first opera.
The director had wisely edited the libretto down to two hours, with a story that was tight and compelling from beginning to end, with beautiful voices, scary villains and lots of comic relief.
How do Australians do so many things so well? They combine tremendous pride in their work with a friendly, light-hearted sense of humor that you can't help enjoying. Of the 32 countries we have visited as a family, Australia is our new #1.