It's been called the destination of dreams, the "in" adventure for America's affluent actives. Call it what you will, Australia, the only country in the world that is also a continent, is not only Down Under--it is also under done. The world's largest island and smallest continent--the land of kangaroos and koalas--is among the last spots on earth to offer unique, unspoiled and hassle-free travel experiences.
Traveling some 20,000 round-trip miles, across the International Dateline, beneath the Equator, below the Tropic of Capricorn and through 9 time zones will reveal to you the many faces of amiable Australia...the oldest of continents...the newest of nations. Wherever your Australian itinerary may take you---from the Great Barrier Reef to Ayers Rock---all roads lead to Sydney.
You cannot escape the presence of the sea in Sydney, a vibrant sprawling metropolis of more than 3 million people. The harbor is breathtakingly dominated by the gracefully arched Harbour Bridge ("The Coathanger") and the soaring sails of the $102 million Sydney Opera House ("The Other Taj Mahal").
GRACEFULLY ARCHED HARBOUR BRIDGE ("THE COATHANGER")
Like the Taj Mahal, the Opera House--a spectacular architectural concept rising from the sea at Bennelong Point--is the realization of human aspirations and ambitions. The Opera House was conceived in 1957 when Danish architect Jorn Utzon won an international competition for the design of a performing arts center--not for an opera house. Somehow, the misnomer "Opera House" caught on. Because of its name, many people think the building has only an opera theater. It has, in fact, four performing halls (concert, drama, cinema and opera) and a great shop in which to buy authentic Aboriginal arts and crafts.
Interesting trivia exists about the complex that took about 19 years to build on Bennelong Point, a peninsula jutting into Sydney Harbour. What might be the most famous roofs in the world were made from 2,194 concrete sections that weigh up to 15 tons. They are held together by 217 miles of tensioned cable and are covered with more than 1,056,000 Swedish-made, white and cream-colored ceramic tiles. The total roof weight is 157,800 tons and the highest shell roof is 221 feet above sea level.
The only internationally recognized building in Australia, the Opera House has become a national symbol. The profile of its famous concrete roofs depicts different things to different people: "A huddle of nuns in the wind"; "an echo of the sails of yachts on the harbor"; "some gigantic, magnificent but utterly strange hard-shelled sea creature which has come up from the bottom of the water to rest on Bennelong Point".
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
Near the Opera House, adjacent to Circular Quay (pronounced "key"), is The Rocks area, the original settlement of Sydney and a unique part of Australia's colorful past. When Britain lost the American colonies in 1776, the government chose to form a convict colony on Australia's east coast. The First Fleet, under Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in 1788 with 1000 men and women. They were deposited in the area now known as The Rocks.
The Rocks was once one of the most unsavory areas of Sydney. Today, with Georgian and Victorian buildings nestled compatibly on streets built by convict laborers, The Rocks area is a living piece of history. Early Australian buildings have been converted into first class restaurants and shops brimming with Australian crafts and some of the most innovative fashions in the country.
THE ROCKS AREA
While at Circular Quay, grab a piping hot piece of spinach pie by the jetty. Then hop a ferry, for the ride to the Taronga Zoo. Warning: if you want to avoid a strenuous uphill climb, and enjoy a bird's eye view of the zoo, catch the Sky Safari cable car to the top of Taronga and amble your way down. Near the top of the zoo, don't miss the Koala House. It's probably the only place in Australia where you're likely to sneak a glimpse of these mischievous marsupials in their treetops.
Darling Harbour, since its opening in January 1988, has rapidly become one of Australia's most popular tourist attractions. Only minutes from the city center, in an area once called Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour is a $1.5 billion satellite city brimming with life. In this once forgotten area, exhibitions, museums, the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, restaurants and shops are all united by the theme of sea, sky and ships.
Sydney's City Centre, extending from Wynyard Station to the Town Hall, encompasses many restaurants, a plethora of shops (often housed in historic structures like the Queen Victoria Building) and the spectacular Sydney Tower. The tallest structure in Sydney, the Sydney Tower is the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere. It houses revolving restaurants and an Observation Deck. Sydney's suburbs are also worth a visit. Once you find yourself under the two colorful arches on Dixon Street, you will succumb to the chaotic atmosphere of Chinatown.
TOURING SYDNEY IN STYLE
Sydney's more than 30 beaches draw hundreds of thousand of surfers every summer's day. Bondi Beach, the city's most famous stretch of sand is only a few miles from the city. And, speaking of beaches, you must try Doyles on the Beach (at Watson Bay) for lunch or dinner. When it comes to seafood, Doyles is a household name in Sydney. Call in advance to see if you can reserve a harbour-view table. You can taste Australian cuisine in Bennelong, carved out of a bulkhead in the Sydney Opera House.
And while we're on the subject of food, check out every restaurant you eat in to see if you can find the perfect Pavlova. Pavlova is not a valuable gem nor is it a defecting Russian dancer. Pavlova is the meringue-based traditional desert of Australia. In spite of this dubious honor, it is somewhat difficult to find Pavlova on restaurant menus. Pavlova, an almost indecent delight, was created by the chef of the Palace Hotel in Perth for a banquet honoring prima ballerina Anna Pavlova's 1926 Australian tour. A crunchy, creamy, meringue with endless fruit toppings and dollops of garnished whipped cream, Pavlova comes in all sizes, shapes and toppings. However, like any sought after celebrity, Pavlovas are very temperamental and difficult. If not made to perfection, Pavlova can be a flat, chewy pancake or a soggy sweet disaster.
Only 62 miles from Sydney, an easy drive along the Great Western Highway, loom the Grand Canyon-like Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains, and surrounding area, derive their name from the ever-present haze caused by rays of light as y strike droplets of moisture (containing eucalyptus oil) evaporating from eucalyptus trees in this heavily timbered area.
The once-humble mining town of Katoomba...the Katoomba Scenic Railway and Skyway...the three eroded sandstone pinnacles that according to Aboriginal legend have been named Three Sisters...and lunch at The Hydro Majestic Pavillion are not to be missed.
THE THREE SISTERS SANDSTONE PINNACLES ATOP THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
And don't forget to leave some time for shopping. If it's serious shopping you're into, treat yourself to an original Bushman's oil skin coat at R.M. Williams or some Aboriginal arts and crafts, such as some didgeridoo music by Alastair Black along with an Abo-painted didgeridoo to be found in specialty shops like the one at the Sydney Opera House. If it's really, really, serious shopping, you're into, go for the opals and pearls.
JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 41 national Travel Writer Awards and a Travel Consultant with the Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio