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G’day for the last time (this trip at least)! This week we end our incredible journey to Australia in beautiful, lush and tropical Queensland. This is the state north of New South Wales (where Sydney is), and is famous for the Great Barrier Reef. As I mentioned last week Amber Airplane went home early (she was tired of traveling) which meant just the boys (my brother, our buddy Donny and me) would be exploring on our own. Does that sound like trouble to you?
My biggest problem the entire trip was trying to talk sense into Frank. He wanted to rent a car and drive 10 hours from Sydney to Byron Bay (more on "Byron" later). He thought it would be a nice drive (and save money). Donny and I wanted to fly up the coast, because we hate driving long distances. We sat in an internet café near Bondi Beach feverishly trying to find the lowest deals. Frank searched car rentals, I looked for airfares on Virgin Blue and Qantas, and Donny was checking out Aussie porn sites. (Just kidding -- Donny was really paying his bills online. But that’s kind of boring, don’t you think?)
Before Frank could find a good rental car deal, I found a fantastic last-minute one-way fare for $80 (USD) to Brisbane (pronounced "Briz-bun") on VirginBlue.com. Virgin Blue is Australia’s first low-fare airline. Next month Australia gets its second low-fare airline (and third major carrier). The airline is called Jetstar, and it is owned by Qantas. Jetstar and Virgin Blue are similar to Jet Blue (without live TV).
Pleading my case, I said, "Frank you’re the only one who wants to make the long drive. Everyone says there is nothing to see for the first six hours. Even if there was, it’ll be dark by the time we get rolling, so what’s the point?" That did it. I saw a light turn on in his tired head. So I went for the kill. "Besides, we’re all tired and not accustomed to driving on the other side of the road. So why not spend a few extra dollars and travel like rock stars?" Well, maybe not like rock stars, but he got the point. It’s funny: I'm not the one paying, but I'm arguing to spend more money.
You could practically hear the bells go off in his head. Before Frank could change his mind I entered his credit card info and clicked "purchase" to seal the deal. Our flight was leaving in a little over two hours, so we needed to hurry up and find a taxi so we could first grab our stuff from the Coogee Beach hotel, then head straight to the airport.
We made it in plenty of time. Terminal 2 at Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport is nice, and the check-in lines at Virgin Blue moved quickly. I guess Frank and Donny’s jet lag was starting to kick in again, because they behaved like kids. They wouldn’t stop kicking a plastic juice bottle like a soccer ball. Of course they were making a scene, and didn’t listen to me when I told them to stop.
Fortunately, three sisters (as in nuns) got in line next to us. We could tell they were from Calcutta by their habits (as in apparel). Donny, a devout Catholic, immediately and guiltily picked up the bottle like he was back in Catholic grade school. I guess he didn’t want to get smacked with the ruler. It turned out these nuns had worked alongside Mother Teresa. Donny talked with them, and they were kind enough to give each of us a prayer card and pendant of Mother Teresa. Very cool.
Security moved quickly. However, Australians do things a bit differently than the TSA. Travelers can usually place their laptops in plastic containers on a desk a short distance from the line. However, because this desk was away from the line and there were no more bins on it, I didn’t figure this out. When it was my turn to go through (after a two-minute wait) the security screener yelled at me for not having my computer in a bin. He pointed to the table and barked for me to go over there. He was such a jerk I wanted to say, "Look buddy, if you did your job and made sure the table had plenty of bins then my laptop would’ve been in one, so why don’t you just give me one of the empty ones right next to you, shut your pie hole and we can both go on our merry way?" But of course, nice guy that I am, I didn’t say that (which is why I’m not writing this from an Australian jail cell). Instead I killed him with kindness. I put on a smile and said, "I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know the procedure, and the table was out of bins." I guess security screeners get stressed out even in laid- back Australia.
Beyond the security machines, the terminal is plush. There are all kinds of places to eat, drink and shop. The Blue Room – Virgin Blue’s airport club -- was the best place I found to pass time. Unlike airport clubs in America, you can buy a day pass for only $4 USD (no, that’s not a typo). The club offers the same amenities as those in America: comfortable seats, internet connections, a bar, telephones. But unlike in the U.S. they provide a café to buy food and snacks, to either eat in or to take out. There is also a screening room, continually showing feature-length movies for those with long layovers. This is a great place to pass time. Virgin Blue Room located on the foodcourt level in Terminal 2, just below the escalators.
Virgin Blue does it right not only with airport clubs, but the entire airline as well. Sir Richard Branson, who runs both it and Virgin Atlantic, knows what he’s doing. I was particularly impressed with how fast and painless they board their planes. Each passenger gets a paper receipt, like from a supermarket. However, instead of itemized groceries, they print your name, seat number and a bar code.
The bar code is key, because Virgin Blue doesn’t tear tickets or put them in a gate reader like in the United States. Instead passengers are asked to have their receipts out. The whole crowd moves toward the jetway, the gate agent quickly scans it with a hand-held device, and passengers barely lose stride. To make sure they didn’t miss anyone, passengers need to show their receipt to the flight attendant as they pass through the plane door. (Not knowing the drill, I put mine away and had to fumble through my things trying to find it).
The other reason Virgin Blue achieves miraculously fast boarding times is they board the planes from both the front and the rear of the plane. Plus, the overhead bins are spacious. Our 737-800 series plane was completely full, yet we boarded in seven minutes. Pretty impressive, huh?
What’s also impressive are the flight attendants. Almost all of them look like models. The three of us sat there wide eyed and almost simultaneously asked, "Are we on Virgin Blue or Playboy Airlines?" We had never seen better looking flight attendants. (Wait! Don’t get me wrong -- of course none of them compared to Amber Airplane. But taken all together, Virgin takes the prize as the airline with the hottest flight crew). And it wasn’t just that we got lucky. We passed many other flight crews in the airport, and they were equally attractive. Wow!
Because Virgin Blue is a low-cost airline they make you pay for everything, including drinks and food. That’s okay though, because the fares are so low. And it’s nice that they offer a meal on even short flights (Jet Blue doesn’t have anything on their cross country flights!) The flight to Brisbane took an hour. But there was a time change of an hour back, so it was like we never left. (Hey, Frank, that’s another reason to fly: It takes no time!)
Walking through the airport, we were greeted by "Welcome to Bris Vegas" signs. Bris Vegas? That’s what the locals call it because of the sun, the casino’s and the crowds.
Our bags came out quickly. Because we had no hotel reservations (and no clue where to go), we went straight to the Visitor Information & Booking Centre booth. The agent was very knowledgeable and helpful. We said we didn’t have a lot of time, so forget hanging out in a city -- we wanted the beach. The agent found us a hotel and transportation to Surfers Paradise for a couple nights, then a place in Byron Bay for the rest of our stay.
Surfers Paradise is on the Gold Coast. It took a little over an hour to get there, in a half-filled shuttle van. We could have flown into the Gold Coast Airport (also known as Coolangatta Airport), which is only 25 minutes from the hotel. However, we hadn’t known where we were going, plus the airfare to Brisbane was cheaper. Incidentally, the price of the shuttle was reasonable too: only $28 (USD) apiece.
Driving along the highway felt like I was on I-95 in Connecticut. We passed signs for Blockbuster Video, KFC, Subway... We arrived at the ANA hotel, which is supposedly 5 stars. I would give it 4. ANA is a popular chain, especially with Japanese visitors (probably because it’s a Japanese company). We quickly learned this area gets many tourists from Japan. Almost all the signs and menus are in English and Japanese.
The hotel is huge -- over 400 rooms. The hotel has everything a traveler needs: restaurants, health club, tennis courts, shops, room service, business center, valet, concierge, a neat no-fog mirror, a nice view, and inexpensive charges to use a dial-up modem (80 cents for a local access number; there is no time limit). The hotel is in the heart of Surfers Paradise, with easy access to everything. The beach is one block away, as are many shops and restaurants. ANA Hotel, 22 View Avenue, Surfers Paradise, Qld. 4217 Australia; tel.: (61) 7-5579-1000.
When we reached the room around 9 p.m., those guys tried to take a nap. But I was starving, so that wasn’t going to happen. I dragged them off the bed and across the street to a Chinese restaurant, which was pretty good and not cheap. After dinner we went to an ice cream shop called Cold Rock, which was a total knockoff of Cold Stone Creamery. (Maybe Cold Stone copied them, but I don’t think so). The menu was the same, but the ice cream and experience wasn’t as good as Cold Stone’s. From then on we visited many other ice cream parlors and gelaterias. In fact, I ate so much gelato that Donny and Frank started calling me Johnny Gelato.
We were disappointed by Surfers Paradise. First, most of the people were either Japanese or Aussie teenagers, or in their early 20s (not really our crowd). We didn’t go into any clubs, mainly because everyone was so young that they didn’t start getting going until 1 a.m. Plus, when we tried to walk in one we got denied because we had shorts on.
Second, Surfers Paradise seemed to me like Waikiki in terms of visitors and shops (without the ABC stores). The shops ranged from top-of-the-line like Prada to your basic souvenir junk shop. There are plenty of places to eat, including a lot of fast food like McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s (Burger King). We didn’t eat at the fast food joints, and found most of the rest of the food to be average at best.
The best part about Surfers Paradise is the beach (duh!). That was where we spent most of our time. The beach is long and wide, and has really nice, clean sand. However, the water has nasty rip tides, so there weren’t a lot of places we could swim. There were plenty of lifeguards. In fact, they were all over the place -- in chairs, 4x4s, trucks and helicopters. They made sure we swam between the flags (as you can see from this picture, all the swimmers were on top of each other). However, the water was warm and refreshing.
There are plenty of things to do in the area. There are casinos, all kinds of theme parks and the Australia Zoo, which is run by the Croc Hunter himself. However, we didn’t go to any of those places. If we had had more time (and some kids), we would’ve seen everything. But traveling with just guys, we saw enough in our short 2-night, 1-full-day stay.
We knew this place wasn’t for us, so we packed our bags and called Byron Bay Taxi (Tel: 02-6685-5008). The drive took an hour, and what was crazy is that I felt like I was in Florida, not Australia. We drove through towns named Palm Beach and Miami. I did double and triple takes when I saw them. I have woken up countless times and not been able to remember what city I was in, but this was the first time it happened to me in the middle of the day.
When we arrived in Byron Bay we set our watches back, because we were back in NSW (New South Wales). Just driving through, we knew Byron was much more our style. The town was quaint, and the people were older, more sophisticated and more relaxed. There was no tension in the air.
Byron Bay definitely attracts a wide variety of people. A number of them are naturalist types, into alternative lifestyle and medicine. "The place is loaded with float tanks, ‘pure body products,’ beauty therapists, and massage centers. Many locals are painters, craftspeople, glass blowers, and poets. Many of the locals simply stay at home, sipping their herbal tea and preparing for the healing light of the coming dawn." Source: Frommers.com
Because it’s in every guidebook, the town gets plenty of tourists. Many are also into things like yoga, but in the summer there are loads of backpackers who want to hit the party scene and discos. Surfers come to ride some of the best waves in the world. And regular folks (singles, couples, families) love it for the great beaches and relaxation.
We stayed at the Belongil Beachhouse, 50 yards from Belongil Beach and a 10- minute walk from town. The Beachhouse has rooms for almost every type of traveler (luxury-seekers won’t like this place). There are dorms for backpackers, motel-style rooms for those who want their own bathroom, and for those traveling with a larger group or not on a tight budget they have self-contained two-floor cottages with two bedrooms (king-sized bed in one bedroom, two single beds upstairs) and kitchen. Prices were very reasonable. We had a cottage, for only $160 USD a night.
The best part was that they provided a bunch of extra amenities, including a computer room with high-speed internet, laundry facilities, a relax haven (for in- house float and massage), a garden cafe serving snacks and full meals, and a frequent free courtesy bus to and from downtown Byron Bay. Belongil Beachhouse, 25 Childe St., Byron Bay, NSW; tel.: 02 66 857868.
The first thing we wanted to do was to check out town, including the famous lighthouse we kept hearing and reading about. We already knew that the Beachhouse not only rented boogie boards and surfboards for cheap; they also had a whole bunch of bikes (including tandems). I think they charged a $1 an hour. The manager couldn’t stress us how we needed to wear a helmet, because the police are very strict and enforce the $80 fine if they catch you riding without one. Let me get this straight: You can hike up almost 500 feet up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but you can’t ride a bike without a helmet? Go figure.
After testing out a number of bikes (most of them beat up) we decided to take the free shuttle that was just leaving. Besides, with the yellow helmets we really looked dorks. We reached town in five minutes, saw there were plenty of shops and restaurants, and followed the signs to the lighthouse.
To walk up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse from town is about 1.2 miles, but of course we thought we would take a shortcut by going along the beach. We got off the path, and ended up going twice as far. Even though the walk was long, it was very enjoyable. At times we had to rest and catch our breath because it’s a bit steep. And, of course, because we’re out of shape.
Walking along Main Beach was incredible. Huge rocks with a wooden staircase leading to the top made for a great lookout. We watched surfers ride long, perfect-shaped waves. This spot is ideal for beginners, because the waves aren’t too big.
One of the highlights of the walk (besides Main Beach) is that we came across Australia’s easternmost mainland point. It is the perfect place (in June and July) to see whales migrating north. It’s also the perfect place for a lighthouse.
The lighthouse is beautiful, and like everyone else we stopped many times to take pictures. I read that the lighthouse is the second most photographed building in Australia (after the Sydney Opera House). I believe it, because it’s so picturesque. At 320 feet high it is not as tall as most lighthouses, but this one doesn’t need to be. It’s attraction is that it was built so high up.
Construction began in 1899, and ended two years later. The lighthouse is visible from 27 nautical miles out to sea. It flashes every 15 seconds. The first lamp at the lighthouse was kerosene fired, and not until 1959 did they switch to electrical power. The lighthouse was relied upon for many years, but in the mid-20th century, after radio and radar were introduced, it started to lose its importance. "Yet it wasn’t until the widespread use of satellite navigational aids in the last twenty years that lighthouses in general were no longer deemed to be ‘vital.’ In December 1989 the last two lighthouse keepers at Cape Byron did their chores for the final time. The keepers were made redundant and replaced by a machine. An era had passed." Source: Frommers.com
After our four-hour excursion we arrived at one of the nicest hotels in Byron, The Beach Hotel. This is a perfect place to have a drink while watching the sun set, or have dinner. We did both. The Beach Hotel, Byron Bay NSW; tel.: +61 (0) 2 6685 6402.
Because I was leaving the next day, I decided to buy some presents. However, I showed up at 6 p.m., which is when most shops closed. I found a few open, but most of sold only the usual tourist souvenirs. I didn’t want any of those, so I checked out the grocery store in town. It was small, but I found some unique candies to bring home.
That night we were up late hanging at all the clubs. I can’t recall the names, but any local will tell you what place is the hot spot for that night.
The next morning it was time for me to go home. I said goodbye to Frank and Donny. They had decided to stay an extra week, but I couldn’t. Besides, I was getting homesick. After all, I had been traveling for the past month. I took a $28 (USD) cab to the Gold Coast Airport. The airport is only 35 minutes from Byron, but it’s back across the state border in Queensland where there is a time change. That meant I got an extra hour of much-needed sleep. I didn’t have to leave until 10:30 a.m. for an 11:30 flight (how sweet is that?!).
The Gold Coast Airport is a lot bigger than I expected. It is operated by multiple carriers. Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar offer daily flights to major cities in Australia, such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Newcastle. New Zealand’s Freedom Air flies regularly to and from Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Dunedin. Australian Airlines flies to Cairns, with connections to a range of Asian cities including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Japan’s Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
I flew back to Sydney on Virgin Blue in a 737-800 series plane. Again Virgin Blue operated efficiently, and the flight attendants were professional (and beautiful). I needed to get to the international terminal in a hurry, so instead of waiting 20 minutes for the shuttle bus or walking (which would’ve taken 30 minutes), I shared a taxi with a very nice Australian lady headed to Vietnam. The normal taxi ride is $10 (AUD), but because the taxi dispatcher told the driver we weren’t together he charged us $15. I thought that was kind unfair.
I waited in the long United Airlines line, and was one of the last people to check in for the flight. I was supposed to get upgraded to business class, but United moved many of the San Francisco-bound business class passengers to our flight because of problems with an upper deck doors (they had to close that section). That meant my upgrade went back down. That hurt -- but looking back, I’m happy it happened. I was able to conquer one of my greatest fears: flying coach from Australia to America. I was amazed that the 12-and-a-half hour flight went by quickly. In fact, it was a piece of cake. I did sit in Economy Plus (five extra inches of leg room), and I did have an empty seat next to me. Still, it was economy.
Next week, we’re back in the States. Join us as we go to New York to meet the mob boss!
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Five strategies for cutting costs on European travel |
Quite a few readers have asked about whether they can afford a trip to Europe this year. Given the weak dollar—down almost 40 percent against the euro over the last two years—they're concerned that Europe may be priced out of reach. My answer is: Despite the weak dollar, you can still visit Europe without breaking the bank. Here are some suggestions for offsetting high prices. Click Here To Read Article
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