- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

SYDNEY, Australia — Just about everyone seems to agree that the most scenic view in Sydney is from, or near, a spot known as Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.

Gazing across a wide cove of the magnificent harbor of Australia’s largest city, you see a striking panorama. Straight ahead, the white sculpted sails of Sydney’s famous Opera House protrude out into the harbor on Bennelong Point, blue water to three sides.

Just behind it, a bit to the right, elevated high up, is the world’s largest steel-arch bridge, which locals call “the coat hanger.” To the left is the stunning skyline of what many say is the world’s most attractive and appealing city.

We were walking to that viewing spot, taking a shortcut through the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens smack in the center of downtown, when a sign next to the path caught our attention. “Please walk on the grass,” it read.

In smaller type it continued, “We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, sit on the benches and picnic on the lawns.” How we love Australia — and the Aussies. It’s always a delight to return.

We feel the same way about neighboring New Zealand and its people, the Kiwis, as they call themselves after their rarely seen nocturnal bird, which lives in no other country.

New Zealand is a pleasant and lovely land with many plusses and next to no minuses. No snakes. No poisonous insects or plants. No dangerous wildlife.

“But we do have three pests,” our Kiwi guide told us on the first day of our 22-day Goway tour, “and all three were introduced here from Australia. The rabbits are a bit of a nuisance. So are the ‘possum. But it’s the third pest that really bothers us.” Of course, someone promptly inquired about the third pest. “Australian rugby players.”

Kiwis and Aussies delight in such good-natured put-downs of each other and each other’s country, but they truly like each other — and the other country. There is so much to like about each of them. Anyone who hasn’t visited Australia and New Zealand is missing out on two of the world’s best destinations. Visiting either is wonderful. Visiting both surpasses mere wonderful.

PERFECT TOUR

A great way to experience some of the finest each country offers is to take a good tour — about three weeks — that takes in the highlights of both. The best we have seen in quality, value and visiting all the right places was our recent Waltzing Matilda tour with Goway.

First stop was Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, home to nearly one-third of the country’s population of 4 million. Surrounded by sweeping expanses of water, with scenic hills and woods all around, it is positioned on a very narrow isthmus that separates two splendid harbors. It has the highest number of boats per capita in the world, giving it its nickname: “city of sails.”

Our tour included a Pride of Auckland evening harbor sail, complete with a fine seafood dinner; a visit to the top of a volcanic cone, Mount Eden, for a panoramic view; shopping in Parnell Village, a mile-long historic area and upscale little oasis known for its maze of stylish boutiques; plus free time, which we used to take a daytime ferry ride to Devonport, a pleasant seaside village with craft shops and sidewalk cafes a few minutes’ ride across the harbor.

Leaving Auckland and heading south aboard a luxury bus, we arrived two hours later at Waitomo, renowned for its spectacular caves, especially its Glowworm Caves, where thousands of Waitomo glowworms, found only in New Zealand, luminesce overhead as you glide slowly through dark grottoes in a small boat.

Rotorua, a short and scenic ride farther southeast, welcomes you with whiffs of sulfur (which soon you cease to notice) because this small town, like Yellowstone National Park and Iceland, is one of the world’s few geyser sites. This is the most popular tourist destination on New Zealand’s North Island.

Besides spas offering thermal waters and mud baths, Rotorua is home to two outstanding tourist shows.

• The Agrodome Sheep Show turns such Kiwi farming activities as the shearing and herding of sheep into showbiz that is fun and educational for all ages. It also is one of the best places in New Zealand or Australia to buy wool products.

• Tamaki Maori Village, an evening cultural show of song, dance and storytelling about life in pre-European New Zealand, was created by and is owned and operated by indigenous Polynesians from Rotorua.

Rotorua is New Zealand’s Maori center; about 40 percent of the city population is Maori. The show includes a hangi, a delicious traditional Polynesian banquet of foods cooked over hot rocks in an earthen oven.

The main courses may have been traditional Maori, but the main after-dinner treat was the New Zealand national dessert, Pavlova. We love it. It’s a fluffy, feather-light whipped concoction made of egg whites and sugar, crisp on the outside but soft on the inside and covered with fresh fruits, including strawberries, passion fruit and kiwi fruit, and then whipped cream, then more fresh fruit.

Aussies claim they invented Pavlova and the Kiwis copied it. Kiwis say the Aussies just wish they created it. Like their ribbings over rugby, the Pavlova dispute is never-ending.

A tour among the geysers and mud pools also was part of our program, as was a visit to Rainbow Springs, with its sparkling clear streams full of trout and an enclosure in which you can view a kiwi bird in a nocturnal environment.

Goway offers the options of a free day to explore more of the Rotorua area’s attractions on your own or a farm stay with a Kiwi family. We had never before done the latter, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of dining, talking and laughing with our delightful dairy-farming hosts, Jim and Barbara Hitchcock. We also learned that in this country, in which sheep outnumber people 10 to 1, the dairy industry is larger than the sheep industry.

ABUNDANCE OF BEAUTY

A short flight brought us to the South Island’s Queenstown, a resort area in a spectacular setting on an inlet at the north end of a long lake with views across the water to the Remarkables, an aptly named mountain range.

Some Kiwis claim popularity has caused Queenstown to grow too large — its population stands at about 8,500, although it remains a delightful small town.

We looked around this area before and after touring some of the bottom of the South Island, including Fiordland National Park, where we took a cruise on 10-mile-long Milford Sound, one of the most scenic places in this country renowned for its scenery.

What most distinguishes New Zealand from many other scenic places is not only its abundance of spectacularly beautiful sights, but also its shortage of unattractive places.

We ended our New Zealand visit in the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, a garden city of 370,000 people, often called the most English city outside England.

On the way there from Queenstown, we soaked in vistas of the unique blues of lakes Tekapo and Pukaki and stunning views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and the mountains called the Southern Alps.

ON TO AUSTRALIA

Our first stop in Australia was Cairns, population 98,000, far up north in the state of Queensland. It’s situated on — take your pick — Trinity Bay, the Coral Sea or the Pacific Ocean. This is tropical Australia.

Visitors come to Cairns for the rest and relaxation of the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forests. We spent a day not far offshore viewing the reef, part of the time on a glass-bottom boat.

The next day, we traveled a scenic railway farther north, where we went into the rain forest and rode the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway just yards above the canopy. A land-and-water Army Duck Tour took us through the forest by amphibious vehicle and onto a lake. We visited a butterfly sanctuary, saw kangaroos and koalas and other wildlife indigenous to Australia and took in an Aboriginal culture show, where we had a chance to test our skill at throwing a boomerang.

That introduction to Aboriginal culture was especially fitting because our next stop was a place that is both sacred to Aborigines and an icon of Australia: Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock. It’s almost dead center in the country in a Northern Territory area the Aussies call the Red Center.

Fly halfway across Australia — it’s about the size of the continental United States — to see a huge rock? A rock that is isolated in the Outback, surrounded by great distances of desert and scraggly small brush? Where the nearest town, Alice Springs, is 280 miles away?

Well, Gibraltar is a rock, and Easter Island is the most remote inhabited place on Earth, but we enjoyed visits to both of them. Besides, Uluru purportedly is the largest monolith in the world: 2 1/5 miles long by 1 1/2 miles wide, shaped much like an oval. Its top is 1,100 feet above the surrounding desert plains.

Some visitors climb the very rough, steep and narrow trail to its top. Most of them live, but quite a few of them don’t. It is disrespectful to the beliefs of the rock’s Aborigine owners to do this, but they tolerate it under their lease terms with the government.

Stories abound about tourists who have made the mistake of moving quickly to catch their hats — it’s very windy up there — and plunged to their death. In another tale, a man thought his tour bus was leaving and tried to catch it, missed his footing, and lost his life; it turned out the bus wasn’t his.

What makes a trip all the way to Uluru so worthwhile is the experience of watching from nearby as the sun sets against it. The color changes slowly, and then, suddenly and dramatically, it intensifies. It radiates, and for a few minutes, you almost would think the great rock was emitting fire from within as the rays of the sun seem to spray it with a blazing orange-red glow.

We walked trails around part of Uluru, listened to Aboriginal legends about it and saw Aboriginal paintings and carvings in some of its caves. We also rode around it (it’s about a three- to four-hour walk) and revisited it at sunrise. The morning experience comes close to seeing Uluru at sunset — only the color and hues are different, more orange than red, sort of a reverse of the sunset color.

To some, another massive nearby geophysical formation is nearly as impressive as Uluru. Kata Tjuta, formerly the Olgas, means “many heads” in the Aborigines’ language, and that’s what it looks like: lots of huge head-shaped rocks scattered among gaps and gorges.

Like Uluru and the soil of the surrounding area, they are very red. Unlike Uluru, a massive single rock, at Kata Tjuta you can walk among many different rocks that are huge, but not quite that huge.

Red is a dominant color in the Outback, so we saw little but red soil and small brush on the long ride to Alice Springs. One of the stations, or ranches, we rode past was 1.25 million acres, and that’s not the largest in Australia.

“Alice,” as the Aussies call it, may have been immortalized in books and films as the quintessential Outback town, but mostly it’s just a remote outpost where a telegraph station once stood and Outbackers go to catch a train or plane.

Goway gives its customers the option of getting to the next stop, the South Australia city of Adelaide, by air or, for an extra charge, aboard the Ghan, considered one of the world’s great train journeys. A freight car had gone off the track far away from Alice, so we had to scrap our planned Ghan trip and spend an extra day in Adelaide.

ADELAIDE

Our expectations were exceeded by Adelaide. It also reinforced our feeling that Australia’s large cities are consistently appealing — clean, modern and pleasant. We have never met a large Australian city that we didn’t like.

Adelaide is not a place many American tourists see. Their loss. This is one of the nicest, best-planned cities anywhere. Its site by the Mount Lofty Ranges was selected and laid out by William Light, a 19th-century visionary surveyor. This is a fertile area known for its wines, close to the Murray River valley and less than 10 miles inland from Australia’s southern coast, which gives it a Mediterranean-like climate.

Adelaide is a delightful, pleasant city, and easy for getting around. You can walk from the center of town to beautiful parks in no time. Its metropolitan-area population slightly exceeds 1 million, but in no way does its prosperous-looking downtown feel crowded.

That’s because its center-city population is small, accounting for less than 2 percent of the population of the metropolitan area, and its square-mile business district and surrounding suburbs are buffered by a ring of parkland.

To make living in and visiting Adelaide even more appealing, the Festive City is an ever-improving arts center.

RIVAL CITIES

When it comes to the arts and festivity in this part of the world, Melbourne and Sydney are at the top. Melbourne, with more than 3.1 million residents, is Australia’s second-largest city; Sydney, population 3.5 million, is the largest.

Reminiscent of the Aussie-Kiwi rivalry, the one between Sydney and Melbourne is full of good-natured ribbing. Residents of one swear they could not be from or live in the other. Truth is, they are both great places to live — or to visit.

Melbourne has a bit of an Old World look and charm for several reasons. Credit its architecture, the many European immigrants who arrived there after World War II, and its streetcars, which are almost symbols of the city. Like all other large Australian cities, it contains lots of parkland and, like most others, it has a river running through it. Our tour took in all its major sights.

MOST POPULAR

It is easy to understand why Americans love Sydney, a great place to begin or end a fine tour. In reader polls in recent years, Sydney usually has topped all other cities as the favorite of American travelers.

Board a local ferry or a tour boat and feast your eyes on its magnificent harbor. Then ask yourself if you can think of another that compares.

Take a good look at the Sydney Opera House against the backdrop of the city skyline from a boat passing by or maybe from across Farm Bay at a point near Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair — and then try to think of a more attractive city.

Go for a stroll through the Rocks, the historic area where Sydney began, now an attractive mix of historic buildings, cafes, galleries and boutiques. Check out Darling Harbour, with its huge shopping mall, renowned aquarium, recently opened Australian wildlife center and rows of harbor-side cafes.

Beaches? More than three dozen good beaches are just outside Sydney.

If you would like to see more Australian wildlife, go to Circular Quay and hop aboard a ferry to the city’s beautifully designed Taronga Zoo. You will enjoy fantastic harbor views from Taronga as well as during the trip.

Walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens and take a good look at the skyline of this great city. Don’t forget to walk on the grass.

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