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    Did you know that San Francisco has a 3-digit phone number providing up-to-the-minute information on traffic conditions and incidents, details on public transportation routes and fares, instant carpool and vanpool referrals, bicycling information and more? The number is 511, and it's a toll-free phone and Web service that consolidates Bay Area transportation-related information into a one-stop resource.

    Thanks to a partnership with public agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Transportation, 511's phone service is available in the entire nine-county Bay Area, on nearly all landline and cellular phones. The counties included are Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma. The wireless providers offering 511 are AT&T, Cingular, MetroPCS, Nextel, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

    By calling 511, you get instant access to a wide array of transportation information. Their state-of-the-art speech recognition system allows navigation through the 511 system without pressing a button. For selections with a touch tone dial pad, press 0 at each menu, and the system will describe the available options. In addition to providing traffic conditions and public transportation, they also offer have information on commuter Incentives. Did you know you could get financial incentives for commute alternatives? They even provide answers to bicycling questions, including how to get bike maps, tips for taking a bike on transit and across Bay Area bridges, and how to get in touch with local bicycling organizations.

    Hearing and speech-impaired callers can access 511 by dialing 711, the national three-digit number for access to Telecommunication Relay Services (TRS). Ask the operator at 711 to connect you to the 511 service. There are 20 paratransit agencies for persons with disabilities or the elderly, including shuttle services, public transportation and customer service.

    My personal favorite is that 511 provides information on airports, such as traffic conditions, public transportation, ground transportation, parking options and shuttle services for SFO, Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento Airports.

    If you plan ahead it’s even easier to use their web version of these services. Just log on to 511.org
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G’day mate! Last week we took you to the Blue Mountains; this week we’re back in Sydney to hit the beaches. As I promised we were greeted by two surprise visitors. Any guesses who? If you said my brother Frank and his partner (work partner, that is) Donny, then you were right!

As most of you know my brother Frank is notorious for traveling at the last minute. It drives me nuts! He claims he won’t commit to anything due to his busy and always-changing work schedule (he’s a lawyer), but I think he has committal problems. This trip was no different. Frank and Donny settled a huge case in their office, and when Frank learned we were in Australia and that Amber Airplane had two extra flight passes that were about to expire, they were off.

Within two hours these turkey -- I mean guys -- made flight arrangements to join us. While they were busy flying from New York to San Francisco to Sydney, Amber Airplane and I were pretending we were Sydneysiders (that’s the term for the locals). We didn’t do a lot of touristy things; instead we just hung out at cafes and walked around the city. We frequented one of our favorite little places, Hyde Park (named after the Hyde Park in England). The Australian version has one of the coolest walkways around. It’s surrounded by fig trees, which is why the area is called Hyde Park Avenue of Figs. This is a great place to relax, or eat a to-go lunch. However, you don’t want to hang out there at night. The place is swarming with bats – big ol’ bats sucking on those figs.

If we were a little more adventurous or not afraid of heights we would have signed up for the Bridge Climb. Did you know you can actually climb the world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge with a professional team? After a short course and breathalyzer test (no drunks allowed), you will be taken up ladders and climb all the way to the summit, over catwalks and arches. The walk takes three hours, but you never have to worry about falling because you are harnessed in. I hear this is by far the best view of the world's most beautiful harbor. Hopefully, one day I will get up enough cojones to do it. Reservations are recommended. Rates begin at $118 USD.

When Frank and Donny finally landed in Sydney, the weather was at its worst: cold and rainy. Frank had been to Australia before, so it was no big deal. But it was a real bummer for Donny that his first impression of the Land Down Under was dreary.

They met us at our hotel at 9 a.m. They were a half hour late because of a rookie mistake: Jumping in a taxi without getting Australian dollars from an airport ATM. Instead they changed dollars at our hotel’s front desk. That was a big boo boo. Not only did it take much longer, but they got ripped off in the exchange AND had to pay the taxi driver idle time.

Our hotel was sold out, and because Frank and Donny wouldn’t legally fit in our room the four of us had to find another place to stay. We logged on to JohnnyJet.com and found a two-bedroom apartment through Wotif.com (more on that place later). The new arrivals were starving, so instead of going directly to our new place we stored our luggage with the concierge and took a walk down to the heart of the Rocks in the rain. However, before finding a place to eat we walked a block further to the harbor to show Donny the world-famous Opera House. I mean, come on: The first thing to do in Sydney is see the Opera House, even if it is from afar. But we only stayed a minute, because those guys’ stomachs couldn’t wait any longer. So they walked into the closest restaurant.

That was a big mistake. Now I really felt bad for Donny. Not only was it raining, but The Rocks Cafe for lunch was absolutely terrible. Horrible. The food was bad, but even worse the waitress was one of the worst I’ve had in my entire life. No lie. Not only did she not know anything about the restaurant dishes but she had a bad attitude too. I wanted to get up and leave, but they were too famished to agree. The Rocks Café, 99 George St, Rocks, 2000, Tel: (02) 9247-3089.

Our next stop was across the street, at the NSW (New South Wales) Tourism Office. They have all kinds of free information, including maps. NSW has thousands of attractions, from historic buildings to scenic drives. The tourism office is a perfect stop for new arrivals who have never been to NSW, or have no savvy local friends to show them around. Sydney Visitors Centre - The Rocks: 106 George Street, Sydney; tel.: 02-9240-8788.

We went back to the hotel, had the concierge call us a Maxi Taxi (jumbo taxi). We would not have been able to fit all our luggage in one of the normal taxis waiting out front. Instead of driving five minutes down the road to our new apartment/hotel, Frank asked the driver for a little tour of the city. After such a bad lunch we didn’t want Donny to have a negative impression, so we had a second meal to forget about the first experience. This time we ate at Harry’s Café de Wheels in Woolloomooloo. There’s nothing like Harry’s famous pies. Afterwards Frank showed Donny the W Hotel, which is adjacent to Harry’s at the Finger Wharf. The W is the place to go at night for a hip scene. There are also some incredible restaurants that are lined up along the wharf. W Sydney, Tel: (2) 9331-9000.

The taxi driver then took us back through the city to Darling Harbour, which is where our new hotel/apartment was located. Darling Harbour is very popular with both tourists and locals. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and places to have a fun -- including a couple of casinos, world-class museums and the Sydney Aquarium. Getting to Darling Harbour is easy, and you don’t even need a car. You can arrive by ferry, water taxi, monorail or Metro Light Rail. It's also only a five-minute walk from the middle of the city.

It turned out to be good that the Observatory Hotel was sold out, because we had a chance to not only stay in another part of town, but experience an entirely new kind of property. Our new temporary residence (we could only get one night, because they too were booked solid) was the Goldsbrough Apartment Hotel. The Goldsbrough was originally built in 1883, and incorporates unique historical features. The interior is open, with tallowwood floors and exposed ironbark columns. The Goldsbrough combines a modern hotel with the privacy and spaciousness of a fully self-contained apartment. There are 400 apartments, 100 of which are used as hotel rooms. This place is ideal for families, business travelers or 4 adult travelers like us.

Our two-level room had two bedrooms (one with a queen-size bed, the other with twin beds), two full bathrooms, a living room, kitchen, and a washer and dryer. It slept six comfortably, because one of the couches pulled out to a bed. Added bonuses included incredible views of the city, and free access to the indoor pool and a workout room. Connected to the building were some small businesses, such as a nice little café, a newsstand, and an inexpensive internet café that had plug-ins for laptops -- everything a traveler needs.

The room cost only $180 USD a night. What’s great about Australian hotels is that the room rate you’re quoted is the price you pay. You don’t have to worry about taxes, resort fees or crazy incursions popping up on the bill. The Goldsbrough Apartment Hotel, 243 Pyrmont Street, Sydney; tel.: (2) 9518-5166.

As Frank and Donny slipped into a jet lag coma, a couple of my good Aussie friends I hadn’t seen in a year stopped by for a quick visit. A couple of hours after Radsy, Damo and their kids left, I went to wake Frank and Donny. That scene would’ve made for some good reality TV. (I should preface this by mentioning that when those two told me they were only going to nap for an hour I said, "I’ve heard that one before." I warned them if they went to sleep it would be almost impossible for them to wake up -- and if they didn’t it would throw off their sleep cycle for a good portion of their trip. Of course, they didn’t listen to me.)

Travelers who have just gotten off a long flight should always try to stay awake until at least 10 p.m. local time. That’s the best way to adjust. I couldn’t let these guys ruin their trip. I tried hard to wake them up, but it was tough. I first gave them a polite gentle shake. When that didn’t work, I used my dad’s annoying trick of flicking the lights. They didn’t even turn their heads. Then I shook them really hard. If they hadn’t been snoring I would’ve taken their pulses, because they didn’t move. I finally climbed up on the bed, stood over them, grabbed them by their shirts and shook them as hard as I could. When THAT failed, I finally just dragged them out of bed onto the floor. That did the trick.

They were not too happy with me. In fact, for a few seconds I felt like I just wakened two big, hungry, pissed-off bears from hibernation. Luckily, before they treated me like a timid doe they realized it was for their own good. An hour later as we headed out the door, they thanked me.

The Goldsbrough is less than a five-minute walk to the heart of Darling Harbour, which is very convenient for tourists or anyone attending a conference at the convention center. You don’t even need to cross any busy streets, thanks to a handy overpass.

For dinner we walked to the Cockle Bay Wharf, which is directly across from Darling Harbour. Cockle Bay is home to an alluring array of restaurants, bars, cafes and other attractions. We dined at Nick’s, one of Sydney’s finest restaurants. The highlights include fresh seafood, fine Australian wines and a relaxed harborside setting. It was the perfect place to celebrate their first night in Australia.

The place was packed, and the food was delicious. Kangaroo was on the menu, but I settled for chicken. Frank’s jumbo shrimp were so big they could have been mistaken for lobsters. Amber Airplane gets upset when shrimp or anything similar is served -- she thinks the eyes are staring at her. She made a big mistake by telling that to Frank. Of course, he had to torture her throughout dinner by making the shrimp come back to life. Well, maybe you had to be there. Nick’s Restaurant, The Promenade, Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour; tel.: 61 2 9264 1212.

The next day Amber Airplane decided not to change her plane ticket, and to go back home to America as scheduled. She was tired of our long weeks of traveling, and felt the three of us guys should be together. I think she also realized it was easier for us to find a hotel room that would sleep three. Besides, Amber Airplane and I had been living the good life for the past month. We stayed at some of the best hotels and resorts in the world. She knew that my brother Frank doesn’t care what kind of place he sleeps in, so long as it’s inexpensive. We’re not high maintenance, but you have to admit it’s hard to go from a 5-star place to a 1-star.

After we said our sad goodbyes, the three of us took a taxi to our friend Blake’s house on Bondi Beach. Frank figured Blake could find us a good, cheap place to stay, since he lives in the area we wanted to be in. Our taxi driver -- a 65-year-old Italian immigrant -- was classic. He could not stop telling us how Australia is the best place to live. Much better than dangerous America and corrupt Italy, he said. He went on about everything: Not only do Australians make the best coffee, but they have the coolest and hottest women too. He gave us a 15-minute lesson: Australian Women 101.

Basically, he said, Australian women won’t go out with you unless they like you (unlike American women, who will waste their time just for a date). Plus, Australian women don’t expect men to buy them drinks or dinner. In fact, they always pay their share. He told us some more crazy stuff which I can’t share, for fear the FCC might shut me down. I can tell you that we talked to a bunch of Australian women, and when we asked them if our taxi driver was right they all said "Yup." All you single guys out there might want to buy a plane ticket right now. (It’s actually a good time, because Qantas is having incredible sales that expire on April 8th -- see the Specials above).

When we arrived at Blake’s apartment, you can tell by his expression that he didn’t have many suggestions for us finding a room. He said, "Oh geez mate, it’s summer and the weather just turned beautiful after a few days of rain." Blake said we might have a hard time finding a vacancy at the upscale places. That was music to Frank’s ears, because unlike Donny and me he wasn’t looking for upscale. Blake suggested we walk up the street, and look at some of the hostels and inexpensive properties.

A hostel? My first thought was "It’s a good thing Amber Airplane isn’t here -- she would’ve fainted." None of us had actually ever stayed in a hostel before. But when Frank found out it was only $19 USD a night (per person) he was very interested (he was paying for all of us). I figured what the heck; it could be a good experience. I know some hostels are for all ages, but this one was definitely for young backpackers. The place wasn’t that bad – unless of course you were coming from one of the best hotels around, in which case it was a complete dive. We could have had our own jail cell-looking room with two rickety bunk beds, a fan and cinder block walls. I had my laptop with me -- my lifeline. I wasn’t going to carry it all around town, and I wasn’t going to leave it in that room protected only by a padlock either. But that wasn’t even the worst part -- we would’ve had to share a filthy bathroom with the entire floor. No thanks!

Bondi Beach is one of Australia's most famous beaches – if not the world’s. It draws visitors from all over the planet, seeking sun, surf and sand. "It is a world of lifeguards patrolling between yellow and red flags, surfers riding the waves, bronzed bodies, comfortable cafes and smart restaurants." Source: Bondibeach.com

We walked all around Bondi popping into every hotel, motel and hostel trying to find a vacant, clean room. I felt like we were back in the ‘80s, trying to get a room the old-fashioned way. Why we didn’t pick up a phone or log onto a website, I don’t know. I guess we just wanted to get a good look before we committed. The good news is we were also able to check out all the shops, cafes and ice cream parlors. Aussies love their ice cream, and so does Johnny Jet.

Finally Frank asked a concierge at an upscale hotel to find us a good place to stay. She obliged (when he gave her a good tip). After several phone calls she booked the three of us (most hotels only allow two adults) in a room 12 minutes down the road (by taxi) in Coogee Beach.

"Coogee is derived from an Aboriginal word, ‘koojah,’ which means ‘stinking place,’ probably because of the intolerable smell of rotting seaweed washed up on the beach. A far cry from today, where Coogee is a residential suburb, with a well laid-out playing area." (Source: holidaycity.com) Coogee has plenty of places to hang out, eat, surf and swim, but it just didn’t have the same feel as Bondi or Bronte (In between Bondi and Coogee).

However, we were fortunate to get a hotel anywhere, and the Coogee Bay Hotel worked for us. The rooms were supposedly nice, but ours wasn’t. Then again, what do you expect? We got the very last room. It was on the second floor, right next to the ladies bathroom, and the view from the window wasn’t pretty. There were two twin beds, and the only place the rollaway fit was in between them. That made it look and feel like we had one California king-sized bed, which is not a good thing for three heterosexual men. Guess who got to sleep in the middle? Of course it was me. I didn’t even bother arguing, because I was the youngest and I wasn’t paying.

Coogee seems to attract a lot of backpackers and visitors, mostly from Great Britain. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but if I want to hang out with the Brits I can do that in the U.K. It turned out that our hotel was the spot to be in Coogee on a Saturday night, because of the large patio bar and the indoor disco. That’s cool, unless of course your room is the only one directly above disco. Even with my ear plugs in I could still hear the steel frame of the cot go thump, thump, thump all night long. Coogee Bay Hotel, Coogee Bay Rd. (corner Arden St.); tel.: (02) 9665-0000.

The first night (before the thumping) Blake picked us up. We went to the North Bondi RSL (Returned Servicemens League) Club, a cool, inexpensive place near his house, for drinks and dinner. It has incredible views of the beach, and is very reasonable. It's cheap because it has different tax laws (it was originally set up for soldiers after the war). If you live locally you have to be a member to get in, but tourists don’t have a problem. The only challenge is finding a table. North Bondi RSL Club, 120 Ramsgate Ave., Bondi Beach; tel.: (02) 9130-3152.

After a nice hot meal we began to walk to Icebergs, another club on the opposite side of the beach. However, Frank and Donny re-spotted the karaoke sign they had seen earlier that day. It was for a karaoke competition, which was going on right then. Frank and Donny live in a small town in Connecticut, and every Tuesday night they perform the same song: Angel by Shaggy. It’s hilarious, because these guys aren’t great singers, but they get the crowd into it by prearranging all the girls to come up and dance with them.

We walked into this karaoke bar, which had a very impressive movie theater-sized screen displaying the words directly behind the performers. By the looks of the people (They were really skinny older Asians), we thought our boys had the competition in the bag. However, within a few minutes we were reacquainted with the lesson "Don’t judge a book by its cover." Nearly every single performer sang like they belonged on MTV. It was incredible. Needless to say, Frank and Donny got spanked.

After our little lesson we continued on to Icebergs. First, though, we had to stop (for the second time that day) at one of the best gelato places around, Pompei’s. Pompei’s gelato is almost as good as Italy’s, and they use a similar policy as the Italians: If you sit down to eat it’s more expensive. We got ours to go. Pompei's Gelateria & Pizzeria, 126 Roscoe St Bondi Beach; tel.: (02) 9365-1233.

Last year we spent a lot of time and money at Icebergs. Like the North Bondi RSL Club, locals can’t come here unless they buy a membership, but out-of-towners are welcome. The difference between this club and the other is that this is much more upscale -- and a lot pricier. Icebergs is one of the coolest clubs around, because of its location, décor and customers. By day members enjoy the great outdoor saltwater pool. At night you can have an excellent meal, or lounge around the incredible bar with movie stars. Icebergs swim club and bar, 1 Notts Ave., Bondi NSW 2026; tel.: (02) 9130 3120.

The following morning we ate breakfast at one of Coogee’s many outdoor cafes. We walked off our large meal by going to Bondi. This is a long walk, and turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. It must be at least five miles, and it was at least three hours because we took our time. The sun was hot and the waves were pumping. They were so huge that it was fascinating just watching them crash against the cliffs.

We made many stops along the way. The first was to pay our respects at a memorial for the victims of the October 2002 Bali bombings. Of the 202 people who died, 89 were Australian -- and 20 of them came from this area. It was a very nice memorial, and we were honored to remember those innocent people whose lives were taken by faceless cowards.

Along the trail there were so many incredible views that we spent a lot of time just staring out at the magnificent scenery. It was a nice, relaxing walk. We even stopped to watch a lady practice her lawn bowling. When we reached Bronte Beach we cured our thirst with fresh fruit smoothies and a shot of wheatgrass.

Just before we made it to Bondi we passed through a huge cemetery by the sea. I’m not used to seeing cemeteries by the sea so it was kind of eerie. When we finally reached Bondi we went straight to the beach. The sand there is amazing. It’s so nice and clean. Instead of renting towels like we did last year, we bought some at one of the many shops along the street. They were cheap in material, but not in price. Walking back to the beach I ran into the JetStar guerrilla marketing team. JetStar (owned by Qantas) is Australia’s new low- fare carrier, and will begin service next month.

After a couple of hours in the sun we went to lunch at a fantastic Thai Restaurant, appropriately called Thai Terrific. The Thai beef salad was amazing -- I mean, terrific. Thai Terrific, 147 Curlewis St., Bondi Beach; tel.: (2)-9365-7794.

After lunch we ran into Blake and his girlfriend Ann Marie on the beach. They insisted on taking us to one of Sydney’s many harbor-side beaches. The waves are much smaller there, so we could surf. Neilson Park, located in Watson’s Bay, is one of Sydney’s Harbour National Parks. The beach and park were amazing, but we weren’t cut out to surf there. Even if we were brave enough to swim or surf through broken shark nets, we never have surfed over the reef. It was just three inches below the surface.

Since we are in Watson’s Bay, I should tell you about one of Sydney’s most famous restaurants, Doyles. We were fortunate to dine there one afternoon, even though we foolishly showed up without a reservation. Doyles doesn’t open until noon, but we arrived at 11 a.m. To kill time Frank and Donny read books, while I went exploring. I walked a couple hundred yards up the street to The Gap Bluff Centre, which is another Sydney Harbour National Park. Visitors follow a path and stairs to the top, where they are greeted by commanding and beautiful views of Sydney Harbour on one side, and the Tasman Sea on the other. It is well worth the visit.

At high noon I went back down to Doyles. Since Frank and Donny were first in line, we got a table at the back of the patio. Luckily we sweet-talked the hostess into giving us a prime table upstairs on the balcony. What a view we had!

Frank and Donny are huge seafood lovers, and they both agree this place has the freshest seafood they ever had. That’s a pretty strong statement, I know, but Doyles apparently backed it up. I am not a seafood lover, so landlubbers like me will be more interested in the incredible view and laid-back atmosphere. However, I did fill my belly with all of their non seafood dishes: salad, french fries and mixed steamed vegetables.

Doyles is famous for its live lobsters and mud crabs, but Frank ordered a unique appetizer I have never seen: fried bait fish. These were the same fish (shiners) we saw back home in Connecticut with nets, though back then we used them to catch snappers. Who would ever think people would fry them up and eat them like french fries? By the way, our Scottish waitress at Doyles was one of the best ever – a nice contrast to our waitress at the Rocks Café. Doyles (http://www.doyles.com.au/wharf.html, Watson’s Bay Wharf, Sydney; tel.: (02) 9337 1572.

Next week we finish our amazing trip to Australia up in Queensland. Frank really wanted to drive the 10 hours, and I wanted to fly the one hour (that’s why they call me Johnny Jet and him Frankie Four-by- Four). Find out next week who got his way, and where we ended up.

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet

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  • As an Australian (born in Sydney) and living in the US for 24 years (now a US citizen) I am enjoying reading your stories from Sydney. I went to school for two years at Fort St Primary School right next to the Observatory (now a museum) and on the approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In those days The Rocks was not a tourist area at all and was run-down. But how come you didn't climb the bridge?? It is the very best tourist adventure in the world! I did it two years ago and loved it. Despite the heights it is totally safe as you are chained to a wire the entire time in groups of ten or so. You climb up stairs from the Rocks and get to the very top of the bridge where they take photos of you with the Opera House and city as the background. Now I know you hate heights but if you did the Scenic Railway in the Blue Mountains you can climb the bridge too! It has a website at www.bridgeclimb.com with great photo. This kind of adventure could never happen in the US as the liability lawyers and insurance companies would make it impossible. Thanks, Brian
  • You continue to be the envy of anyone who has ever boarded a plane. – Dan, Connecticut
  • Great newletter. Very interesting and smooth. Good job. - Frank
  • My company is in the cruise business, and we have an internal group that produces group cruise events. I bet a "Cruise with Johnny Jet" would generate a huge amount of interest, people would love to spend a week at sea with you and Amber. Rick - Phoenix
  • I saw your excellent site Airlinenumbers.com and I was really impressed. Good Job! Melany H.
  • When you go to Bondi, check out the Biltmore Hotel. Its not like the Phoenix Biltmore (5 stars), but a hole in the wall rooming house with showers that overlook Bondi Beach and the ocean. Great view, low price. You can always get a room there when Sydney is sold out. Scott P – Seattle, WA
  • I had a chance to read your book recently and wanted to drop you a quick note to thank you for including SideStep. You must be proud - this must clearly have been a ton of work. Congratulations! Cheers, Phil – San Jose, CA

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That never ending trip sounds fantastic! Now I really want to go to Australia! One thing that I've learned is to buy electronic devices that use AA batteries since they are available all over the world. So if I get in a jam and my digital camera batteries die I can use the ones from my short-wave radio or CD player or other device. Happy Travels, Ken – Nebraska

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