With speedy transit, high-tech connections, top accommodations and relaxing flights, even a short trip can offer a memorable Aussie getaway. I recently cleared my schedule -- a week for an independent press trip.
And because the trip was so short it could be once-in-a-lifetime luxurious.
Australia is as big as the states, so I concentrated on one area, a varied chunk of the south: Melbourne, the wine-growing Yarra Valley, Sydney, and the Blue Mountains.
The plan was to pack precious vacation time with well-timed sightseeing and indulging. I would make the most of every moment. I also stripped in-country transport time to a minimum, flying in-country when possible. And I carried-on with wheels for quick comings and goings.
The indulgence started with a Qantas flight to Melbourne from LA, with a touchdown in New Zealand to stretch my legs. I slept nine hours in a flat bed, watched a bunch of DVDs including a stellar Leonard Cohen documentary, and dined on Aussie seafood and wines at leisure. Rested and ready, I was able to hit the ground in Oz, if not running, at least walking fast, ready to savor every precious minute of the week.
This green, livable city on Port Philip Bay is proud of its public art, parks and arcades, and a creative culinary scene. I checked into The Lyall, a high-style, exceptionally comfortable boutique hotel in a neighborhood offering a lively Melbourne scene.
St. Kilda, a nearby beachside suburb, offers frenetic nightlife and café atmosphere. I strolled on Acland Street, renowned as the place for tea and cakes, or lattes and chai, or wine. Or pickups, I guessed. Great Aussie-watching, and a chance for some down-time.
Still adjusting, I light-lunched on barramundi, the famed local perch, with a killer ocean view at Stokehouse, and then walked next door for a bracing salt massage at Lyi'Tya Spa Dreaming at the St. Kilda Sea Baths.
I later dined with Peter, a local friend, at Pearl, a black-and-white minimalist space headed by award-winning chef Geoff Lindsay.
World-class surf beaches are a couple of hours away from Melbourne, but the goal was to visit the home of my beloved Australian reds in the Yarra Valley.
Savvy time management ensured marsupials and other unique Australian animals along the way, less than an hour's drive outside Melbourne, at Healesville Sanctuary. This natural bushland setting teems with more than 200 native species, including koalas on branches, howling dingoes, weird platypuses, and groups of kangaroos, hopping around like giant rabbits with built-in baskets.
The Yarra Valley reminded me of Napa, but with kangaroos grazing by the road. First stop, Yering Station Wine Bar and Produce Store, the site of the area's first vineyard, planted in 1838. The sleek restaurant has valley views through a window wall, and features local produce and vintages.
I was tempted, but lunched instead at Chateau Yering Historic House. On over 250 acres and bordering the Yarra River, this 1854 Relais et Chateaux property is lushly comfortable, and from four-poster antique beds 'roos peer back at you through huge windows overlooking the vine-clad hills.
As part of a leisurely wine-tasting drive, I sipped champagne at Domain Chandon, the Australian winery of Moet & Chandon, then ended at the hilltop De Bortoli Winery and Restaurant (for a sampling of cheeses and reds, and a striking panorama).
I walked off the calories at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Rolling lawns and 60,000 species of plants made for a spectacular ramble. Back in Melbourne, dinner was at award-winning Three, One, Two, featuring creative Australian cuisine near the university. I opted for classic Wagu beef.
Next day I skipped an early-morning (literal) overview, ballooning above the parks, coast and skyscrapers of downtown. My more down-to-earth choice was the Melbourne Fashion Experience, custom-tailored to my tastes, visiting designer showrooms and trying on high-end suits in arcaded shops. No Uggs on this spree.
I dined on pate and tarte tatin at Bistro Vue, as Parisian as Paris. And post dinner, sampled two popular, upscale clubs: The Long Room, a shagadelic mélange of antler chandeliers, classical statues, and private tatami rooms. And Toff in Town, with upholstered walls and a train carriage of booths.
A short flight away, Sydney offered a sunny, outdoorsy vibe overlaid with Aussie spirit. My deluxe room at The Four Seasons was a couple of blocks away from the famed Harbour Bridge (some climb it, but I browsed around the popular flea market beneath). And you can tour, or sail around the nearby Sydney Opera House. I couldn't stop staring at the drop-dead iconic view from my room -- bridge and opera house -- and decided to dine en suite and keep staring late into the evening.
To save even more time I could have helicoptered into the deep wilderness of the Blue Mountains but opted for a 90-minute drive through quintessential Aussie towns such as Penrith, Leura, and Katoomba, stopping at cafes, book stores and antique shops to browse and chat up the locals.
I bought a boomerang, and a classy gift for a periodontist friend who has everything: a pouch made from... kangaroo scrotum. My guide was Jane Strang, a savvy, sophisticated personal guide who customizes private trips around Sydney and its environs, driving you in her Mercedes. She'll even golf with you at a championship course (no time on this trip; I'll golf plenty back home).
We skywayed above the famed Three Sisters peaks, bushwalked among waterfalls and canyons, and spotted lyrebirds, cockatoos and kookaburras in the eucalyptus-forested valley. Later we dined and overnighted at an exclusive 19th-century lodging on a cliff top: Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa.
Next day, an hour's seaplane ride from Sydney winged us to lunch at Jane's home overlooking the Pacific in upscale Palm Beach, less stuffy than the Florida namesake and a fascinating taste of Aussie suburban life.
The rest of a lazy late afternoon I shopped and people-watched around the rehabbed Sydney wharf area -- warehouses and marinas turned into condos, boutiques, restaurants and such, overlooking a bay filled with ferries, sailboats and water taxis. I walked 20 minutes across a bridge to downtown questing for an opal, and found a black beauty at a bargain price.
Now I rolled my carry-on to the The Observatory hotel, ultra-lush, and a grand finale for my stay in Oz. I soaked in Sydney neighborhoods including The Rocks, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay and Woolloomooloo. Brightly colored townhouses, highrises, flea markets, galleries, parks, water views -- each area offered distinct, village-like Aussie ambiance.
Last day I lunched on grilled shrimp (from the barbie?) at a casual cafe overlooking Bondi Beach, then strolled the cliff path a mile or so to Bronte, with waves crashing below the rocks, and surfers riding the pipeline. This, I figured, is as Australian as it gets.
At Sydney airport's new first-class Qantas lounge, I could shower, enjoy a massage and a star-chef meal if I desired, but I was happy to relax back my way to the states with vivid impressions of vineyards, mountains, kangaroos, city life, surf, mountain vistas, world-class lodging and dining. I had made new Australian friends and reunited with old ones.
A deluxe quickie trip was enough for an unforgettable taste of Australia.
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