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Going down under:
AS 290 SFO-LAX 04/09/2000 8:00-9:20
This trip has been in the cards for a long time. My friends Wes, Tom and I started talking about it two years ago. We postponed it several times for various reasons. I ordered the travel award from Continental Airlines last summer. When I got up the morning of April 9, it was hard to believe I was actually going to fly to Australia.
(Wes and Tom flew from Houston, Texas, on United. We met up in Sydney the morning of April 11.)
As usual, my friendly cab driver, Diane K., who is able to find my well hidden address even at 6 AM, picked me up on time to get to SFO well before my flight. Renita, the very friendly Alaska Airlines ticketing agent, helped me checked my bags through to Sydney. I asked her about an upgrade to LAX, as my reward was for first class travel except for the short SFO-LAX leg. Alaska has a great feature that allows you to upgrade a short flight by paying them $40 at check in time. (You can also upgrade longer flights by paying more.) She said Alaska's rules didn't allow her to help me at ticketing because it was reward travel, but she would call ahead to the gate to see if they could do anything for me as there was plenty of room up front.
I hoofed it through security to the Alaska gates and greeted the gate agent with a friendly smile. I explained the situation and asked if she could do anything. "That girl at ticketing is new," she sniffed. "She should have known you can't do anything to upgrade reward travel."
Always nice to start a fun vacation trip by having a little attitude thrown at you at 6:30 in the morning.
Resigned to traveling the first leg in steerage, I hiked back to the Continental President's Club. They were swamped with passengers from the 7:30 Newark flight; I don't think I've ever seen that cozy little club room look so ragged. By about 7, all the Newark passengers had cleared out and I went to say hello to my buddies Debbie, my angel at the front desk and Nita, the bartender. To my surprise, Debbie remembered that I was leaving for Australia and started the conversation by wishing me a good trip. After we had chatted 5 minutes or so, I asked her of she knew anyone at Alaska that might be able to help get me up front. She called over and talked to someone in ticketing, who said that both agents were incorrect, and I should be able to get a $40 upgrade even on a reward ticket. She gave me the name of the person she had spoken to, and back I went to the Alaska counter. They finally took my money, gave me a boarding pass for seat 1A, and sent me on my way.
I boarded the Alaska flight around 7:30. We departed on time, and arrived a little early in LA after a very uneventful flight. The Alaska SFO-LAX flight has no food service, not even a snack. LA had beautiful weather, and those of you who know me will know that I had my nose pressed to the window picking out the landmarks: Malibu, the 405, Wilshire Blvd., the Valley, the Hollywood sign, the Griffith Park Observatory, the 101, and finally Hollywood Park, all clear as day. Spectacular.
I walked out of Terminal 2, past Alaska baggage claim and said a little prayer to the baggage gods that my bags would be transferred through to Qantas without a hitch. I found the Qantas counter and checked in for my 1 PM flight. I was surprised by the rather perfunctory service at ticketing; the woman who checked me in was carrying on a conversation with one of her fellow agents and she could barely be bothered by the likes of me. Took a short walk around the terminal. If you are ever stuck at LAX, the food court in the international terminal is a fine place to spend some time: there's a fun selection of restaurants, and the interior design is interesting and exciting. As at SFO, DFS Duty Free at LAX had the usual uninspiring selection of candy (where's the Swiss Teuscher or Belgian chocolates?), cigarettes, perfumes, spirits, etc.
Ground staff at SFO: 3, because of the attitude at the gate and the ignorance of their own rules about upgrades on reward travel
In flight service: 10
QF 8 LAX-SYD 04/09/2000 13:00-20:00 (+1)
I killed some time at the Qantas First Class lounge, a nice, clubby room that Qantas shares with British Airways. Decent food selections: some small pastries and finger sandwiches - but nothing special like the United First Class lounge at SFO. I moved over to another clubroom that Qantas runs when I discovered that the first class lounge didn't have any phones that I could use for local calls, just those insipid ATT calling card phones. (In my opinion, they're an anachronism that ought to be banned from airport club rooms everywhere. Give us phones we can make local calls on!) The other club room was much nicer - larger, with windows looking out onto the runways. Similar food selection. And a couple of telephones I could use for local calls. But freezing! I checked my e-mail and read FlyerTalk, repacked my carry on bag, and went over to the gate, mainly to warm up.
The gate area at the international terminal at LAX is a soulless, boring place - surprising, given the attractive design and interesting shops in the main part of the international terminal. Still having an hour to kill, I walked back out to the main terminal, hung out in the duty free and other shops, and then headed back to the gate as the flight was about to board.
I got on the plane and sat myself down in the wonderful and large sleeper seat that Qantas offers in first class. Even better was the fact that I had gotten seat 4A, which has a changing table next to it. If you don't have a baby with you, you get two feet of room on which to spread out your things. It's like having a little coffee table next to you. (Seat 4K offers the same benefit, and if you're ever fortunate enough to fly up front on QF, I recommend these two seats.) Seat pitch is wonderful, at least 60 inches. The seat in front of you doesn't recline back; when you recline, the seat moves forward. So you get the full 60 inches (or whatever it is exactly) and never feel cramped. The front of our 747 was configured with two seats in row 1, and 4 in rows 2-4, so every seat is an aisle seat. I got a very nice greeting from the flight attendant, Michelle, who immediately offered me a drink and a choice of olives or macadamia nuts.
Our 747-400 lumbered off, and I settled in. Took a look at the Duty Free shopping magazine, then the entertainment magazine. Qantas offers about 80 movies for first class. About 10 of them play continuously, and if you want one of the other 70, you simply tell the flight attendant which one you want to see and she pops a cartridge into her console control. The selection was marvelous, and included a number of films in which I was interested.
I want to say a little about the flight attendants on this trip, because they were exceptional. Each Qantas flight is assigned a Customer Service Manager, and about thirty minutes into the flight, she came around to us and introduced herself, and told us that if there was any way she could help with anything, or any comments we wanted to make, please let her know. Service from our flight attendants Lauren, Fred, and Michelle was extraordinarily attentive and friendly throughout.
Lunch service started about 45 minutes into the flight. After a selection of canapés (lobster and pate), we were offered choice of a starter - a cold antipasto plate or a winter vegetable soup. Dinner choices were roast chicken with braised lentils, salad of salmon with chargrilled vegetables, eggplant parmigiana, and roast beef. I opted for the antipasto and the chicken, and wasn't disappointed on either count. A lovely mesclun salad was served after the starter. Dessert was pecan pie a la mode or spiced apple cake, followed by luscious and rich Belgian chocolate truffles. A very good meal, among the best I have had in the air.
I settled in for the long ride ahead, alternately reading, napping, watching the in-flight entertainment, and working on this web page. Speaking of which, the Qantas crew loved seeing the digital photos I took on the flight - I think my excitement about being aboard rubbed off. We all had great fun during the flight taking the pictures, looking at them in the camera's view finder and on my laptop, and then looking at this web site as I was putting it together. What lovely people to fly with.
Ground staff at LAX: 5, because of the unwelcoming check in and the overly cold lounge (but club room staff were very nice)
Flight crew: 10.5
In-flight entertainment: 10
We arrived on time at Sydney Airport at 8:20 PM. I took a cab (around $25 AU, about a 20 minute ride) to the hotel and crashed. (Much more about the hotel and our time in Sydney below.)
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A Fantastic Hotel Room in Sydney
After quickly clearing customs at Sydney Airport, I found a locker and stored my baggage for the Cairns and New Zealand portions of our trip. (I had packed modularly, so that I wouldn't have to be a beast of burden during this trip.) I caught a cab and took the short, 20 minute ride to our hotel, the Quay (pronounced "Key") West.
Quay West had been recommended by stimpy, a frequent poster on Flyer Talk and a veteran international traveler, when I had posted asking for a recommendation for a place where three of us would feel comfortable. I checked in and was escorted up to the room by the bellhop. He opened the door, I walked into the room, and WOW! There was a big picture window on the north side of the room, and in it was a million dollar view:
Sydney Harbour Bridge and North Sydney to the left
The Sydney Opera House to the right
The Rocks neighborhood in the foreground
Sydney Harbour in the background
Although I was very tired from the long flight, I had to stay up a while and look out the window at the view. It really took my breath away.
I went to bed, slept like a baby, and heard the door to the room open at 7:30. It was my friends Wes and Tom, who had arrived from Houston (via Los Angeles) on United.
It was fun to hear them go into the room and listen to their first reactions to the view as I was getting out of bed to greet them.
After getting up, I took a look around the room; in addition to the view, it also offered a full kitchen, laundry room, two decent sized bedrooms, two comfortable bathrooms, and a nice seating area.
After a nice breakfast at Harrington's, the restaurant at the hotel, we went up to the 24th floor to have a look at the sun deck, pool, and exercise room. It must be the world's most scenic hotel gym. Views were spectacular.
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Traveling around Sydney by Ferry
Sydney's public transportation system (http://www.sydneybuses.nsw.gov.au) includes a fleet of ferry boats. The commuters use them, and they are ideal for tourists. They're inexpensive, and the views from the water are beautiful. An added plus for us: the ferry terminal was a short 5 minute walk from our hotel.
The ferries depart from a cove that cuts between the Opera House and the bridge, so the views as you're leaving are beautiful. So you get to see a few more pictures of those two landmarks, this time from the water.
On our first day in Sydney, we took a walk down to the ferry terminal, then caught the number 4 ferry to Darling Harbour, which is a "festival marketplace" similar to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. There were four or five stops before we got to Darling Harbour, so we were able to see a few things along the way.
Darling Harbour is a touristy area, not unlike something found in many other cities but nevertheless fun. We enjoyed seeing "The Story of Sydney" at the IMAX Theatre to get historical context for our visit. We tried to go to the Powerhouse Museum, a popular science museum with lots of interactive displays, but came too late to get in - it closes at 5 PM. We enjoyed seeing the gardens and reflective pools. And we had a very good dinner at Nick's, an open air seafood restaurant.
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A Walking Tour around Sydney
On Wednesday morning, we sat around the breakfast table and talked about how we wanted to spend our time in Sydney. Among the things that we wanted to do were to see the Opera House, go to the beach, ride the ferries some more, see the Royal Botanical Gardens, go to the zoo (and hold a koala bear), visit the Rocks, and see Sydney's gay neighborhood.
We decided to start off with a walking tour of the Rocks, the Opera House, and the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The Rocks is Sydney's oldest urban neighborhood. It's where the first settlers, many of whom were convicts, landed, and where the first commercial district grew up. Earlier this century, the whole neighborhood fell into disrepair and it was nearly built over with skyscrapers as an extension of downtown Sydney. But there was a public revolt, and the Rocks stayed low rise and maintained a lot of its original character.
Today, it's fairly touristy, with lots of shops, pubs and restaurants. But it's also a beautiful part of the city, as it sits on a small peninsula that juts out into Sydney Harbour. On the northeast side is the anchorage for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and you can walk under the south part of the bridge. Along the east side is a waterfront with spectacular views of the Opera House, the wharves, and ferry boats coming in and out of the Harbour. There are some historical monuments to the early settlers and convicts who first populated Sydney.
We stopped for a cup of coffee and a gelato at the ferry terminal, then headed east towards the Opera House. We took a look in the Sydney Police Museum, which was on the way but is only open on the weekends. Then through a tony neighborhood full of very fancy apartment buildings, restaurants, and shops. We came to the Sydney Opera House, probably the most famous structure in Sydney and one of the most famous in the world. Justifiably too, in my opinion - but you probably figured that out from the number of pictures of it here.
We had planned to take a tour of the Opera House that day, but it was getting towards lunchtime and we decided to put that off for later. So we walked a bit to the east to the entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens.
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Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens (http://www.rbgsyd.gov.au) is a huge, beautiful park in the center of downtown Sydney. As we were getting kind of tired after all the walking, we decided to take a tram ride through the park and see it that way rather than walk through it.
The tram took us past beautiful vistas, through lush fern gardens, by palms and succulents of many varieties, and past groves of trees on which were hanging fruit bats. The bats hang upside down from the branches off the trees and barely move. We all thought they were fruit pods until a couple of bats got in a fight. Then several bats flew overhead - quite a sight.
We got off the tram, walked a bit more, took a few pictures of the beautiful flowers, and finally came to the Garden Restaurant. The restaurant has two floors. The lower is a self-serve snack and sandwich shop. We went upstairs to the full service restaurant, an open air place that's situated among the trees. The restaurant was quite good - I recommend it for the food, the atmosphere, and the very friendly service.
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Masculine Men Doing Manly Things
We got up Thursday morning, did a few errands, and then caught the 11:25 ferry to Manly Beach. This time, the ferry was a smallish catamaran boat that held around 280 people. The waiting area was packed with all sorts of people going to the beach, including a few groups of students and their teachers, and we barely got on the boat. The ride was over fairly quickly, without many scenic opportunities as we were stuck on the inside of the ferry boat in middle seats.
Upon arrival at Manly Wharf, we made our way to the beach, a short 5 minute walk down a street that would be typical of a beach town anywhere, with its cheap eats, t-shirt shops, and ice cream places. We were hungry, so we found a restaurant right away. Rimini is a nice, open air seafood restaurant right on the coast road, with great beach views. We all enjoyed our meals, then took an after-lunch constitutional along the beach for exercise, photo opportunities, and to take in the sights.
Manly is a very scenic beach town. It was a gorgeous, sunny, but not too hot day, and I really enjoyed our day there. The walk through the town back to the wharf was also pleasant.
By the way, we decided to bypass Sydney's other famous beach, Bondi. They were doing construction work there, building platforms for some of the Olympic events that will take place there later this year. In particular, they are planting piers for the beach volleyball venue. Apparently it's very controversial that they are doing this on Bondi, which a lot of Australians would have preferred to have left as is.
This time, the ferry boat back was a much larger vessel, and much less full, and we were able to get a seat outside on the deck, and thus take in the fantastic views of the entrance to Sydney Harbour, windsurfers racing in the harbour, oil tankers coming in and out, and finally the entrance to the ferry port with the bridge and the Opera House.
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Koalas and Echidnas and Platypuses (oh, my)
Taronga Zoo (http://www.zoo.nsw.gov.au/taronga/tzoo-map.htm) is a short, 20 minute trip by ferry and bus from Circular Quay in downtown Sydney. Crossing Sydney Harbour and heading east past the Governor General's grand Sydney residence, you get to the zoo ferry port. A gondola that will take you to the zoo entrance was under construction during our visit, so we hopped on one of the city busses that was awaiting the arrival of our boat.
By the way, a huge amount of construction was going on during our visit to Sydney, in preparation for the hoards of tourists they are expecting for the Olympics. It didn't greatly affect our visit, and it was interesting to see a city so focused on getting things ready.
After a short bus ride up a hill, we arrived at the zoo entrance, paid our $10 Australian to get in, and looked around. This is a great zoo, both for its animal exhibits and for the views from the hill overlooking Sydney Harbour on which the zoo sits. Among other things, we posed for pictures with koalas, saw echidnas plunking along and platypuses swimming, and walked around an area holding lots of kangaroos. We enjoyed the same great views that the giraffes and elephants get to see from their homes at the zoo.
It was a great way to spend a day.
One note - eating options are not the greatest at the zoo - mostly snack bars and fast food. There was an outdoor barbecue restaurant that looked promising, but it was either under construction or permanently closed, hard to tell which. The zoo would be a great place to bring a picnic lunch, or you might want to consider restaurant options in Sydney before or after the trip to the zoo.
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The Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House (http://www.soh.nsw.gov.au/index.html) is probably the most famous building in Sydney. It actually consists of 3 buildings, which house a number of theatres in which opera, concerts, and plays are shown.
Although we did not go to see any productions at the Opera House, I took a tour of the buildings and grounds.
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The Royal Easter Show at Olympic Park
We were fortunate to be in Sydney during the Royal Easter Show (http://www.eastershow.com.au/). It's like a big U.S. state fair, but Aussie-style. We had loads of fun partying with the natives and going to all the exhibits.
One of the coolest things about going to the Show was that it was being held at the Olympic grounds, so we got to see the stadiums and arenas where the games are going to be held later this year. The facilities are gleaming and ultra-modern. We went to part of an auto daredevil show held in what appears to be the stadium where baseball will be played. And we took in a food exhibit in one of the major arenas.
I had a spectacular barbecued lobster at one of the food booths at the Show.
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Impressions of Sydney
The pictures in this section are some miscellaneous ones I took during our time in Sydney.
QF 770 SYD-CNS 04/16/2000 11:30-14:30
From the Quay West, our hotel in Sydney, we hopped a cab to Qantas domestic terminal at SYD. Arriving at around 10:30, we were dismayed to see extremely long lines at check-in. The entire terminal was jam-packed full of people.
Tom and I got in one line, Wes in the next, so that we could all use whichever line moved more quickly. To our amazement, we were up at the front of the line in about 7 minutes. How do they do it so fast compared to the U.S.?
No ID. No security questions. And very efficient ticketing agents.
We took a moment or two to look around the shiny new terminal - one of the nicest I've seen. Boarding time came, and after being handed headsets, we were herded into our coach seats. Another nice touch - no charge for headsets, and you take them from a bin before boarding our 767. Gives the FA's less work to do.
The movie ("Stuart Little") came on almost immediately after our on time departure. We were fed and ate our lunch, an uninteresting meal worthy of any U.S. domestic carrier: a little sandwich on a roll, a little fruit salad, a piece of cheese, some crackers, and a small candy bar. Our trays sat there. And sat there. And sat there, for probably two hours after we were served. Strange - the same thing happened to us on all of our Qantas flights within Australia and New Zealand.
We arrived on-time in Cairns at 2:30.
Ratings (for all of our QF coach flights):
On-time departure/arrival: 10
In-flight entertainment: 6 (due to the fact that I had problems with the sound system on all four of my flights)
In-flight service: 4 (remove the trays, dammit!)
Food: lunches: 6, dinners: 2
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Turtle Cove Resort in Cairns
After our arrival at Cairns airport, we were met by Bob, a gangly guy with a brash, Australian sense of humor. He drove the three of us, a couple from Canberra, and Philip, an Irish guy who lives in Amsterdam, up to Turtle Cove (http://www.turtlecove.com.au) in a minivan, all the while regaling us with stories of the area and singling out various members of the group to be the targets of his off the wall sense of humor.
At the entrance to Turtle Cove, there is a sign which reads "Turtle Cove - Private Gay Resort."
I hadn't said much to Bob during the ride, but at that point, I half-shouted at him, "No one told me this was a GAY resort!"
He turned around with kind of a look of horror on his face, and I burst out laughing.
The manager on duty checked us in, brought us a glass of orange juice to welcome us, and showed us around the place.
Now if you've never been to a gay resort before, you might have some images in your mind, like:
So let me disabuse you of those notions:
There was no disco the entire time we were there.
Seriously, Turtle Cove's a lovely place right in the middle of a national park, complete with a private, clothing-optional strand of beach (about a half a mile long), excellent staff, a decent restaurant, a gym, and good activity planning. It was a great place to unwind for the week. Pretty good value for the money, too. Highly recommended for my fellow gay and lesbian travelers.
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Day Trips to Cairns and Port Douglas
Turtle Cove lies within the boundaries of a national park. Which is a nice way of saying it's in the middle of nowhere.
City rat that I am, after a couple of days on the beach, I felt the need to get out. So I rented a little Daewoo sedan and took off with Tom to the bustling town of Cairns (http://www.cairns.aust.com),. a forty five minute ride south from Turtle Cove.
First a little about the drive. In Australia, they drive on the left side of the road. (That is to say, the wrong side.) I had never driven on the left side of the road before, and had been nearly mowed down a couple of times in Sydney until Tom started screaming at me "LOOK RIGHT! LOOK RIGHT!" every time we were about to cross an intersection. So I was a little bit concerned with this. And, as it turned out, not without justification. Pulling out of Turtle Cove onto the highway, I went directly to the right side, stayed there for a couple of seconds, looked at Tom, and said, "Does something feel wrong to you here?"
Tom said something like, "Errr, I think so," and I said "I'm on the wrong side, aren't I?" Tom said, "Yes, you are," surprisingly without the slightest hint of panic in his voice.
(I haven't mentioned that the road between Turtle Cove and Cairns is a busy state highway.)
I veered over into the left lane and continued for about 5 minutes, all the while trying to stop hyperventilating.
We pulled off into a scenic outlook, so that I could gather my strength and also to take pretty pictures.
After that, I did pretty well, especially considering the fact that there are about 300 traffic circles (they call them "roundabouts") between Turtle Cove and Cairns. (Well, it seemed like 300, maybe 10 would be a more accurate count.) The one thing that made my head hurt by the end of the drive was the signs admonishing me to "Keep left except to pass." That one was a very hard concept for me.
We got to Cairns at about 4 PM, and walked around the town. Cairns is a tourist town without a whole lot to offer. Very pretty harbor. It's not much of a destination in and of itself, more of a jumping off point for Great Barrier Reef dive tours and day trips to the rainforest. We saw lots of backpackers getting on and off boats and on and off buses, and lots of Japanese tourists out shopping. After our walk through town, we hung out at and had dinner at a pretty decent shopping center that's adjacent to Cairns Harbor.
The next day, I had a couple of free hours before I needed to turn the rental car in. Wes and Tom had gone off on a rainforest tour, so I drove into Port Douglas (http://www.great-barrier-reef.com/vi001.html), a sweet little town about a 15 minute drive north from Turtle Cove. Port Douglas is a lot smaller than, and more pleasant than Cairns, and it's worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood. So is Goanna Bar, where I had lunch: a cool patio style restaurant with a very talented chef. Dessert was especially good: a luscious passion fruit tart on a chocolate crust, without a doubt the best dessert I had during three weeks of eating out.
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The SkyRail Gondola to Kuranda
SkyRail (http://www.skyrail.com.au) is a 7.5 kilometer gondola that takes you from the Queensland coast about 15 minutes north of Cairns up rain forested mountains to the town of Kuranda (http://www.ozemail.com.au/~kuranda). I took the SkyRail by myself when Wes and Tom went off on their all day rainforest tour.
It's a nice, scenic ride. The highlight of it is seeing the Barron River Gorge and Falls, both very impressive.
Kuranda is a tourist trap, although a fairly pleasant one. As you leave the SkyRail terminal, you are greeted with a sign that reads "Free bus to Kuranda Market." You are also shouted at by a woman holding a sign that reads "Short walk through town to Kuranda Market."
The Kuranda Market was probably a nice, small, local market at one time. Now it's used to squeeze as many dollars as possible from the poor, unsuspecting tourists. I took the walk through town and passed at least 5 places called "Kuranda Market." I guess the originators didn't copyright the name and now competitors have sprung up for the tourist dollar, all using the lure of the name "Kuranda Market."
When you get to the actual market, it's all right, but nothing to write home about. So I won't.
Lovely views of the coastal plains around Cairns on the SkyRail ride back to the parking lot.
By the way, you can also take a scenic train up to Kuranda and take the SkyRail down. I had originally planned to do this, but missed the train due to a late start and poor directions to the station. No big deal, as I enjoyed the ride on SkyRail very much.
On to New Zealand:
QF 567 CNS-SYD 04/21/2000 12:30-15:30
About the same level of service as our SYD-CNS flight five days prior. This time, I remembered to ask for bulkhead seats, and the nice ticketing agent got them for us for all the rest of our flights on our Australia and New Zealand itinerary. They made a lot of difference, too, especially for Wes and Tom, who are both pretty big boys.
The plane departed and arrived on schedule.
The movie of the flight was the regrettable "Tumbleweeds." Same problems with the sound system, same boring lunch as SYD-CNS.
We had a three hour layover at SYD. Spent some time consolidating our bags: we had left some of our luggage in lockers at SYD rather than lug it all the way up to CNS. (I packed four smallish bags for the trip: one that went everywhere with me, one for Sydney, one for Cairns, and one for New Zealand. I left the Cairns and NZ bags in the locker when in Sydney, the Sydney and NZ bag in the locker when in Cairns, and the Sydney and Cairns bags in the locker when in NZ.)
After our layover, it was time to head still further down under to New Zealand.
QF 65 SYD-CHC 04/21/2000 19:00-23:55
Again, about the same level of service as our domestic Australian flights with Qantas. On time departure and arrival. QF served one of my least favorite airline meals of late - some sort of chicken dish. I didn't watch the movie on this segment.
We cleared customs very quickly and got to our hotel in downtown Christchurch, a 20 minute cab ride from the airport.
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A Day in Christchurch
Seeing as how we traveled nearly all the previous day, and were going to be on a train all of the next day, we had built a spare day into our itinerary to just to hang out and relax in Christchurch (http://www.ccc.govt.nz). Christchurch is a nice, solid, middle sized (population 400,000) town on the east coast on the South Island of New Zealand.
We took a couple of walks around town, taking in the sights: the Cathedral (right across the street from our hotel), Arts Center, Botanic Garden, Bagley Park, Christchurch tramways, and the Avon River, which runs throughout the town. Christchurch is a nice place to spend a day.
A word about our hotel in Christchurch: Tom had booked us in a suite at the OGB wing of The Heritage, which turned out to be an especially nice place. "OGB" stands for "Old Government Building": the hotel had bought an old office building and restored it. It's a good restoration, and there are lots of nice touches all over the building, including a very nice stairwell with stained glass, brass medallions all over the place, and huge doors that are all that remain of the many safes that used to be in the building. The lunch we had at the restaurant in the OGB was one of the nicer meals we had during our trip. Hotel and restaurant both highly recommended if you ever make it to Christchurch.
I was so stuffed from lunch I didn't eat dinner that night, but Wes and Tom did: they went out to a place called All Bar One, and came back with rave reviews. Sounds like it is definitely worth a visit.
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The TranzAlpine Railway Trip: Christchurch to Greymouth
Christchurch is the jumping off point for the famous TranzAlpine train (http://www.tranzrailtravel.co.nz/tranzScenic/theTranzAlpine/overview.asp). The train takes you through agricultural plains inland, then up into the Southern Alps via the Waimakariri River Gorge, across the mountains via the Otira Tunnel, and finally down to the west coast through the Grey River valley.
The conductor provides excellent narration throughout the journey, club car service is good, and there are lookout cars, from which you can take photos, on the train.
If you do the round trip, like we did, you get to spend about an hour in Greymouth, a drab little town on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. Others left the train at Greymouth to take their bus trips to Franz Josef Glacier.
We sat across from three Japanese women on the way back from Greymouth and had a delightful time chatting with them.
TranzAlpine is rated one of the great train journeys of the world, but personally, I enjoyed the trips on both the Southerner and the Taieri Gorge Railway (both described below), more.
TranzRail Southerner, 4/24/00, CHC-DUD
We traveled from Christchurch down to Dunedin (South Island's second largest city) via TranzRail's Southerner train service (http://www.tranzrailtravel.co.nz/tranzScenic/theSoutherner/overview.asp). The train trip took around 5 hours and took us along the east coast of the middle part of New Zealand's South Island. The first half of the trip took us through primarily agricultural country and was not particularly interesting. But the second half of the trip was terrifically scenic. The train starts to follow along the coast, and you see the ocean and beautiful bays before pulling into Dunedin Station. The train continues on for another 3 hours to New Zealand's southernmost large town, Invercargill.
Service on TranzRail is good. All the trains we took ran on time. Food from the club car is not half bad. (Tip: if you ever find yourself on TranzRail and need to eat, the chicken curry is quite good!) And the conductor provides a narration of the trip, giving you historical and geographical information about the areas you are passing through.
I love the three letter city code for Dunedin: DUD.
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Dunedin, New Zealand
After arriving at Dunedin at around 1 and walking to our hotel, the Southern Cross, we all took naps. Got up, walked into town to have a coffee, then took a look around town.
Dunedin (http://www.visit-dunedin.co.nz) is a charming town of about 120,000. It was built in the last century, financed by a gold rush. Lots of big, pretty public buildings and churches all over the place. The early settlers also built the University of Otago, the first university in New Zealand and still one of the largest. Because of the presence of the university and the small overall size of the town, Dunedin feels like a college town with a large presence of young people but also with interesting architecture. It's a nice place, and I found Dunedin exceedingly pleasant.
We had a terrific dinner at Rogano's (http://www.atoz-nz.com/Dunedin/food_bev.html#roganos) on the Octagon, right in the center of town, then took in a movie (Galaxy Quest) playing just down the street.
Caught a cab to the station the next morning for the next leg of our trip.
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The Taieri Gorge Railway Trip: Dunedin to Pukerangi, then a Bus to Queenstown
We boarded the Taieri Gorge train (http://www.taieri.co.nz) at historic Dunedin Station at around 12:30 PM. This train line was formerly used for both freight and passengers, but had been hurt badly when roads were built in the area 30 years ago. In the early 1990's, the city of Dunedin bought the line and turned it into a scenic railway for tourists. We used the line partly for sightseeing, but also as the first leg of our journey to Queenstown.
The train is scenic, and quite good. It takes you through a river plain dotted with pretty farms, and then the gorge of the river as it heads into the Southern Alps. It goes across four bridges and through 16 tunnels along the way. The conductor provides narration on the history of the train and the area, and on the geographical features. Club car service was similar to what we had on TranzRail.
At the end of the line, Pukerangi, you reach a very small station. There we were met by our bus driver Gary, who drove us the rest of the way, about 4 hours, to Queenstown. Surprisingly, this was a very enjoyable experience, as Gary provided great narration and conversation along the way. He also stopped a couple of times to let us get out and take some pictures. At about 7, we arrived at our hotel in Queenstown (Aspen in Queenstown) had dinner at an Italian restaurant around the corner from it, and turned in early.
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Queenstown, New Zealand: The Beauty and the Beast
I hate it when "they" take a beautiful spot and trash it up with t-shirt shops, ugly hotels, fast food restaurants, and fake "attractions." Where I live, "they" have done that to the beautiful northeast corner of our city. So I was a little chagrined when we finally arrived in Queenstown (http://www.queenstown-nz.co.nz) and found such a place.
The charms of Queenstown are undeniable. Lake Wakatipu is big, beautiful, and crystal clear. The Remarkables, a mountain range behind Queenstown, is a dramatic backdrop for the town. And there are pretty parks all along the lake.
But ugliness is also everywhere you look. Slapdash condos line the mountainside behind town. Some of the most hideous hotels I have seen anywhere have been planted by the lake. And the commercial district is exactly what you would expect from such a place: shops, shops, and more shops to extract every last dollar from your wallet (at "bargain prices," of course).
Queenstown has positioned itself as a center for "exhilarating" outdoor activities. The word "adrenaline" is used over and over again in ads. You can bungee jump, parasail, parapent, windsurf, take a jet boat ride, or ride a "luge" down a concrete path on the mountainside.
We enjoyed our walk into town from our hotel, Aspen in Queenstown and our gondola ride to the top of the mountain overlooking town. But the biggest adventure was...
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Bungee, Anyone? Err, ummm, hmmmm...
A. J. Hackett (http://www.e-travel.net.nz/bungy) commercialized bungee jumping and brought it to Queenstown in a big way. He organizes jumps at several areas, including into the Kawarau River Gorge off the Kawarau Bridge. That's the one you've seen in all the pictures.
Wes, Tom and I left Queenstown for the bridge. We got off, paid our money for our jumps, and went out to the platform, and watched the others from our bus jump and waited our turns. The gorge is beautiful, a great backdrop for a bungee adventure.
Tom went first, a nice dive into the gorge.
Then it was Wes' turn. Another pretty dive off the bridge.
And finally it was my turn. I looked down...hesitated...felt my stomach come up to my ears.
Did a little chicken dance and told the guy, "no way!"
NZ 5036 ZQN-CHC 4/27/00 9:45-10:45
We arrived at check in, and the ticketing agent checked us in and took our bags. She looked at my carry on and scowled at me. "How much does that bag weigh? There's a maximum of 5 kilograms per carry on," she harrumphed.
I said no problem, can I gate check it?
She said I could, and then told me to put it up on the scale.
"You'll have to check that," she snarled at me. "Might fall out of the overhead and onto one of the passengers." (Huhh? What about gate check?)
I took out the laptop and the camera as I was not about to leave them unsecured in a baggage area and hand carried them onto the plane.
Turns out there was no gate check at all.
There was also no security. We boarded the plane without going through metal detectors, the first time I have done so in many years. I was shocked.
The short flight took us by pretty vistas of the Southern Alps before landing in Christchurch. A small snack with a little sandwich was served by our able and efficient flight attendants.
Ground staff: 0, for one of the rudest ticketing agents I've encountered anywhere
Flight crew: 9
Food: 9 (nice touch to have a snack on such a short flight)
QF 47 CHC-SYD 04/27/2000 14:20-15:30
We had another three hour layover, this time at Christchurch Airport. Wes and Tom decided to relax and have a bite to eat; I gave the Antarctic Visitor Center (http://www.iceberg.co.nz) a try. The U.S. Antarctic Research Program is just around the corner from CHC, as is the International Antarctic Center. The Visitor Center is a seven minute walk from the airport. They have painted blue footprints on the sidewalks between the airport and the visitor center, so you just follow the footsteps.
It turned out to be worth a visit. There are many interesting and educational short films and displays about Antarctica, a region about which I know next to nothing. There was also a room you can go into in which Antarctic weather conditions are emulated (snow, ice, wind chill). They provide protective clothing for you to wear before you enter the room. Cool!
The flight to Christchurch was about the same as our other flights on Qantas. Comfortable bulkhead seating in coach on our 767. Halfway decent food (vegetarian lasagna) this time around. On-time arrival and departure.
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Sydney at Dawn
The last day I was in Sydney, I happened to get up quite early. So I went up to the 24th floor gym of the Quay West to take a few more pictures. Warning: the photos in the link are all of Sydney Harbour, so if you've seen enough of it already, you may want to skip this section.
QF 65 SYD-LAX 04/28/2000 13:55-10:25
The excellent experience in QF first class that I had experienced on the way to Sydney was more or less duplicated. Great food, superb service from our crew, great in-flight entertainment system, comfortable sleeper seats, on-time arrival and departure. I wish all my flights could be like this one.
Customs in LA went very quickly, no more than 15 minutes to get baggage and talk to the nice officer. I left my bags with "connecting baggage" and said a little prayer to the baggage gods.
HP 2674 LAX-PHX 04/28/2000 11:34-12:53
I had two options to get back to San Francisco: a United flight that left at 12:30, for which I had purchased a ticket, and the America West connection that came with my OnePass reward. Since the America West flight left an hour earlier earlier than the shuttle flight, and since my bags were already tagged for "HP", I decided to take it and use the UA ticket for travel on some other occasion.
I took the long walk over to terminal 1 at LAX after clearing customs. Checked in at the America West counter and boarded my plane. On time arrival and departure, uneventful flight, no food service on this short hop.
HP 2674 LAX-PHX 04/28/2000 13:37-15:32
The last leg in my journey got off about 15 minutes late, and sat on the ground in line for takeoff another 30 minutes. We got into San Francisco an hour late. I slept most of the flight, didn't take the snack.
Baggage service at SFO was interminable. Bags came off the carousel slowly until the carousel finally wheezed and died. There was a long delay while a mechanic came to try to fix the thing. Two of my bags made it, but the third did not, so forty five minutes after our arrival, I got to spend a little time with HP baggage service. Oh, well, I was pretty much beaten into submission by that point, just wanting to get home.
The bag arrived on the next flight and made it to my house at around 9:30 PM.
Ratings for America West:
Ground staff: 8
In flight service: 8
Baggage service: 0
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To and Fro: Miscellaneous Travel Pictures
The pictures in this section are from our adventures at Qantas' domestic terminal in Sydney, the Southerner train from Christchurch to Dunedin, New Zealand, and our bus trip from Pukerangi (terminal of the Taieri Gorge Railway) to Queenstown, New Zealand. I threw in a few fun pictures of Queenstown.
Impressions of Australia and New Zealand: what you should expect if you travel there, and some tips
Great seafood. I had seafood for many of my meals in Australia. Some of the fish were things I had never heard of. I had Barramundi at Nick's in Darling Harbour - it's a sweet, buttery fish, a bit like sole. And I had a Balmain Bug at Rimini in Manly - it was a large crawfish - delicious. Don't be afraid to try new things in the way of seafood if you go to Australia - you won't be disappointed.
Tipping. We were told that tipping is not expected in cabs and restaurants in Australia. We didn't leave much in the way of tips and never got hassled because of it.
Prescription medications and supplements. Bring your prescription list down under! I found medications sold over the counter In Australia for which I need a prescription in the US; it was less expensive to buy them in Australia than to pay the deductible from my health insurance back home. Two in particular that I noticed were Zyrtec and Claritin, both allergy medications. In addition, I found glucosamine sulfate, a supplement I buy in health food stores in the US, priced at about half as much in Australia.
Take out a meal from a department store. The David Jones department store in downtown Sydney has an extensive food hall with a lot of good choices for carry out meals. The food's good, and not as expensive as at most restaurants.
"You have to eat on the left." We all noticed the difference in the levels of service we received in Australia and New Zealand. Without exception, all the service we received in Australia was noticeably excellent. And much of the service we received in New Zealand was poor.
When we entered the breakfast room of our hotel in Queenstown, we sat down on the right side of the room; the host came over to us and grumpily told us "you have to eat on the left." Restaurant service was in general, unresponsive and uninterested. Maybe we just had bad luck in this regard, and I certainly don't want to be unfair, but we encountered bad service in New Zealand a number of times. It seemed too often to be a coincidence.
Prices. We found prices to be very reasonable in Australia, and even more so in New Zealand. A delicious dinner at Nick's in Sydney ran around $60 US for the three of us (without wine), and included starters and main courses. The same meal could have easily cost double in San Francisco. We had a superb (not including the service) dinner for three at Rogano's in Dunedin for $45 US. Hotels in New Zealand were very well priced.
Don't say "G'day mate in Australia." (Well, at least in Sydney.) If you do, you'll probably be the only one doing so. I had only one person say "mate" to me the entire trip, and I only heard one person say "g'day."
Go there. Australia is a great place to spend a vacation; New Zealand is gorgeous.