New Zealand Part III - Australia

[As an adjunct to our New Zealand tour we spent 3 nights in Sydney Australia.] We arrived at Sydney airport on schedule at 2:30PM.  We were whisked away by bus for a driving tour of the city.  I had been a bit skeptical about a city coach tour but immediately felt rewarded by the decision.  Sydney is a world-class city with multiple sights and activities - and it is well spread out.  We would have seen only a fraction of the city had we not taken the bus tour.  We started with the CBD (central business district), a clean and well organized mix of modern skyscrapers and older, sandstone buildings.  We got out at the Sydney Observatory – a great place for photos of the Harbour Bridge and downtown skyline.  A second stop at Dawes Point provided vistas of Circular Quay and the Opera House. We drove through the Rocks neighborhood, one of the oldest in Sydney.  I liked the combination of old architecture and modern art.  We continued east along the harbor stopping at Mrs McQuerie’s point and Darling Point.  We eventually made our way to South Head for views of the harbor mouth and Manly across the water and, finally, famous Bondi beach before heading to our Darling Harbor hotel.  That evening the group was free to explore Darling Harbor and Chinatown while I met up with Aussie friends Dave and Diana Ellem.

The next morning our first activity was a walking tour of The Rocks.  We had barely begun when the heavens opened and the rain started to fall.  But we had lots of umbrellas to share and our guide Ann was wonderful so we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  We had planned to climb the pylon of the harbor bridge but most of the group decided to skip due to the weather.  A free afternoon allowed more exploration of our Darling Harbor neighborhood.  Options included the Nautical Museum, the Power Museum, Chinese Gardens, the Sydney Aquarium, and the Sydney Wildlife World. As a serendipitous bonus, Chinese New Years was being celebrated.  Our neighborhood was jumping with activities including the classic Chinese dragon parade.  Maia and I opted for the Aquarium since Maia was keen to see a platypus. We were rewarded but only after dogged diligence and multiple returns to the platypus habitat tank.  Platypi tend to sleep in their burrows much of the day and it was only on our final attempt that we found a juvenile platypus swimming, grooming, and rooting for food.  It was an exciting reward for our persistence.  We took lots of blurry photographs and video and barely made it back to the hotel to meet the group.

Our evening’s activity was the annual Sydney Symphony concert in the Domain, Sydney’s massive, downtown public park.  In keeping with Imprint’s values of cultural connections, I had long targeted the evening as a “meet the locals” event.  We were joined by Dave and Diana as well as Jenny Self (a former Rick Steves tour member of mine) and her daughter.  Dave and Diana did yeoman’s work that night.  As prearranged, they arrived early at our hotel (armed with a rolling bag of picnic supplies, blankets, snacks, and beer) to rendezvous with a handful of volunteers from our group. Dave took the vanguard ahead to the Domain to stake out a plot of real estate for 30 people.  Diana and I followed later with the rest of the group, joining thousands of other tourists and Sydneysiders for the city’s biggest public picnic, an annual celebration and highlight of the Sydney Festival.  Dave and Diana played perfect hosts, engaging everyone in conversations and dispensing Aussie beer.  Miraculously, the morning’s heavy rain had cleared off and we had a lovely dry evening to enjoy the concert and festive atmosphere.  The still cloudy sky turned a dramatic red and then purple as the light faded and the music began.  We were treated to Mozart and other classical tunes and a grand finale of the 1812 Overture, complete with cannons and fireworks.  It was a magical evening.

Our last day was a free day until meeting for our farewell dinner.  Maia and I crossed the harbor to Manly for a day at the beach with Dave and Diana. The ferry ride across the harbor was equal to any expensive harbor cruise and we got to see the Ellems’ home and swim in the ocean.  Others in the group did the famous harbor bridge climb, watched a lifeguard competition/festival, took the Opera House tour, and even attended an opera performance.  That evening we gathered at Circular Quay and boarded a cruise boat for a wonderful Sunset Dinner Harbor Cruise.  Diana so enjoyed our group that she joined us for dinner as we feasted and toasted while cruising about the harbor with all its iconic sights.  It was a fitting farewell to Sydney and the tour.  We did make one final stop, a post-dinner happy hour in a Rocks pub.  As we always do, we toasted the tour, shared highlights, and talked about future adventures.

On our final morning, after one last sumptuous buffer breakfast, we bid adieu to our companions who extended their stay in Australia and headed to the airport for our long flight home.  To sum up our adventure down under, New Zealand and Australia are certainly two of the friendliest, most welcoming countries I’ve ever visited.  The list of highlights is very long.  We saw shining harbors, golden urban beaches, and iconic buildings, monuments, and bridges while anchoring our tour with the vibrant and diverse cities of Auckland and Sydney.  The adrenalin activities of jetboating, the sky tower walk, zorbing, and bungy jumping added thrills and spills.  Seeing Albatross and Penguins up close in the wild, horses and sheep shearing in shows, and Platypi and Kiwis in nature parks provided a fun “wildlife” component.  The cultural connections of Maori music and dance performances, our tour of the Maori thermal village, a homestay, tasting great wine with the vineyard owner, and meeting fair dinkum (authentic) Aussies at Sydney’s biggest public party added to the tapestry of experiences.  Finally, the unrivaled variety of natural wonders visited was exceptional:  glowworm caves, geothermal features, Milford Sound, the Southern Alps, Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown vistas, the Otago Peninsula, and Sydney harbor.  It was pretty darn special.