“You’ve Gotta See This” is author and photographer J.M. Hoffman‘s occasional column about unusually enticing destinations. Connect with him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or stop by his photography website for more exotic photos.
It takes an awful lot of magic to make flying for 25 hours from New York seem like a good idea. But Australia pulls it off, which is why I inaugurated my “You’ve Gotta See This!” column with the stunning wildlife there. In this second installment I turn to how you can make the most of two of Australia’s cities, which, though more subtle, are in some ways even more compelling than the wildlife.
I should also be clear: I’m not a city person — perhaps because I compare everything to “the City,” that is, New York City, but more likely just by temperament. Whatever the reason, it’s not easy for a foreign city to impress me. So it was all the more remarkable that I fell in love with two cities so close to one another, even if they’re super far away from me.
Before I turn to these twin destinations, here’s some background on the country.
The Lay of the Land
Australia may be the smallest continent, but it’s not small: Flying across the country or from top to bottom takes about four hours. In the southeast are Australia’s biggest and most famous cities, Sydney and Melbourne. The capital, Canberra, is there, too, by law located at least 100 miles from Sydney — the result of political deliberations early last century in the face of rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. They ended up putting Canberra 150 miles away from Sydney, inland, to mitigate the risk of invasion by sea.
Drive 1,500 miles up the coast from the capital and you get to Cairns, the gateway to the renowned Great Barrier Reef — the largest living thing on Earth, and perhaps the most colorful — while two thousand miles to the west lies Perth, Australia’s fourth largest city. In between are vast expanses of sparse outback that house very few people but do contain lots of wildlife, including the world’s largest population of wild camels (yes, really, though technically they’re dromedaries, and they’re feral, not wild).
I left New York on Tuesday and landed in Australia on Thursday — not having a Wednesday that week — and headed from the airport to the site of my conference: the Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda. It turns out to have been a great choice for exploring Melbourne.
At first glance, St. Kilda is like many other ex-British locales, though the food is certainly better. When you’re there, head over to the trendy Carlisle St. for a wide variety of delicious meal options. (I started each day with an omelet from Batch Espresso. Highly recommended.) You also don’t want to miss the waterfront, home to an actual penguin colony, and a perfect vantage point for taking in the Melbourne skyline across Port Philip Bay.
Melbourne sports the largest urban tram network in the world, so even in my massively jet-lagged state I had little trouble making my way downtown on my first day down under. (You’ll need a “myki” card to travel the trams. My hosts had thoughtfully given me one; but the cards are easy to obtain at 7-Eleven stores and elsewhere.)
Once downtown (known as the “CBD,” short for “Central Business District”), I again found a typically ex-British city, again augmented by great food. Hop off the tram at the Flinders Street railway station and the bustling pedestrian Federation Square awaits to your right. In front of you is St. Paul’s Cathedral. To your left around the corner is a pedestrian mall devoted to food. And a few tram stops down the line there’s another central railway station — this one actually called “Melbourne Central” — that offers more shopping amid striking architecture.
In good weather you can walk between these and other stations, which I did. Then when it started to rain I climbed aboard the City Circle, a.k.a. Line 35, a free tourist tram that shows you Melbourne’s highlights. You’ll want to do this, too. Other options for seeing the city include boat rides up and down the tip of the Yarra River (originally called the “Yarra Yarra River”), which runs from the Yarra Ranges some 150 miles away from Melbourne toward the city, then through the city, and finally out into Port Phillip Bay.
Yet for all the city has to offer — convenient transportation, delicious food options, a glorious waterfront, and a “vibe” that makes it famous — I felt a surprising inability to articulate the most valuable part of Melbourne. (Spoiler alert: I finally figured it out. Keep reading.)
A short plane ride on Virgin Australia took me up to the flashier Sydney.
I again stayed in a suburb, this time in Bondi Junction, which is underwhelming. But it’s within walking distance of Bondi Beach, one of a series of truly exquisite waterfronts that run up the coast of the peninsula just east of Sydney proper. And at least Bondi Junction has good food, including a marvelous little place called Nalini’s at the corner of Spring and Newland. Give it a try. Then beach-hop from paradise to paradise.
Sydney Harbor, home to the distinctive Sydney Opera House, is downtown, and it deserves every bit of its fame. You get a pedestrian walkway, waterfront, and architectural wonderland all at once: You already know about the iconic opera house. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is breathtaking, too. And the skyline is nothing to sneer at.
Under the alias of “Circular Quay,” Sydney Harbor is where you catch a ferry out onto the water to get even better views of the city. The Manly route is the usual choice, but others are good, too. If you have time, you’ll certainly want to explore.
The ferries are part of Sydney’s public transportation system, which, unfortunately, is separate from Melbourne’s. Here you’ll need an Opal card, which you can buy at most public transport stations.
Right next door to the harbor is an endearing area called The Rocks, which is where you’ll want to buy gifts and souvenirs. The narrow roads and small paths lure you in with their charm, so plan on spending more time there than you think you will. Fortunately, it’s also a good spot for a meal.
But once again, like a puzzle I couldn’t quite solve, I felt the obvious and copious attractions were masking the deeper beauty of Australia.
And then I figured it out.
Though it’s cliche, the real appeal of Australia is hidden in plain sight, a precious jewel integrated into common, everyday expressions and interactions.
Australians really do say, “G’day, mate.” “Mate” is what Americans call “friend” (and the word roughly rhymes with my American “right,” just as “g’day” almost rhymes with my American “I”). And when you ask for something in Australia, the common response is “no worries, mate.”
And there it is. In Australia I was among friends/mates I had never met, a fact of which I was reminded throughout the day — as I ordered coffee in the morning, as I boarded a tram later, as I purchased a souvenir, or as I relaxed over dinner. And more than that: Even though nothing can rid the world of problems, at least in Australia, thanks to newfound companions, there is nothing to worry about.
As I said, it’s subtle. But it’s real. And it’s magical. It’s worth the 25 hour flight, and I can’t wait to return.
Before You Leave
Take a look at the tips in the “Good To know” section at the end of my wildlife guide. Then stay tuned to the Frequent Miler to bolster your mileage and point balances, because you really want to take this trip in business class. And with a bit of planning, you can.
Have fun! And tag me on Instagram with your photos.