By Lena Katz

What changes when you fly across the international date line? Nothing — and everything. That was my takeaway from a recent Australia vacation.

Little Penguins of Phillip Island
Little Penguins of Phillip Island

The famously nicknamed Land Down Under may be largely unpopulated, but the cities along the coast are packed with amazing (expensive) food, delicious “sticky” wine, laneways and bridges, shops and squares and performing arts. They say you learn something new everyday, but during Australia’s “One Week Walkabouts,” (which are technically 10 days if you give yourself travel and jet lag-recovery time) you’ll have dozens of new experiences each day — if you can handle it. Here are a few of the highlights to inspire you for upcoming holiday breaks.

Penguins!!
One of the most-touristy excursions I took in the state of Victoria was a trip out to Phillip Island to see the nightly “Penguin Parade.”

It’s crowded, it’s often inclement, it’s … absolutely a must-do as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I felt lemming-like as I tromped from the visitor center to the beach around sunset, following hundreds of fellow poncho-clad visitors clutching tickets in hand. Yes, it’s kind of silly to sit on bleachers or in the “VIP section” peering down at the ocean as though I was waiting for the circus to start. But the sight of a thousand “little penguins” (yes that’s the real name) bobbing up from the waves like black-and-white corks, shaking the water from their chubby bodies and waddling nervously up the beach in clusters of four or five toward their nighttime burrows in the hillside is priceless. It is a natural phenomenon that not even Disney can top, especially once the first few hundred penguins arrive, and the din of “Hey honey, I’m home!!” chatter-squawking begins.

I think the VIP viewing platform is worth the extra fee, not because it’s more comfortable (it isn’t), but because from there, you’re poised directly above the walkway that many of the penguins take rather than struggling through the un-groomed brush. You can peer right down at the brave ones going two-by-two, the nervous ones hustling along in big groups, and the lost ones staring at the hillside like, “Hey dude, where’s my burrow?”

Great Ocean Road
Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road: It’s More than a Scenic Drive
The Great Ocean Road is an epic coastal road that can probably be best compared to the section of California’s Highway 1 that runs from Big Sur through the Central Coast. It starts outside Melbourne in Torquay, and runs 150 miles westward, along sea cliffs and through villages and past landmarks like the Twelve Apostles and the Blowhole. This is a day trip that can extend to a long weekend, especially if you take time to visit the towns, go to the beach at Lorne, traverse the “Great Ocean Walk” starting at Apollo Bay, and hike the woodlands of Great Otway National Park and Melba Gully State Park. The road is twisty-turny and often remote; when people head out, it’s usually after forewarning their friends and colleagues, “Don’t try me on my mobile; I’m going to be on the Great Ocean Road.”

Melbourne Cup Racing (Courtesy: Victoria Racing Club)
Melbourne Cup Racing (Courtesy: Victoria Racing Club)

It’s All About the Ponies
You think Kentucky’s mad about horses? You haven’t been to Oz. Race days here are as big of a deal as NBA or NFL championship games in the States, and Melbourne’s annual Spring Racing Carnival induces a nationwide frenzy comparable only to what Europe experiences during the FIFA World Cup. Everyone’s caught up in it, from the jetsetters who take the best suites at the highrise Crown Towers gambling hub, to the socialites who compete for the best-dressed title at the Fashions on the Field competition, to the “punters” who stake their savings on the ponies.

The Carnival Live Site located on the Crown Riverside hosts garden parties, nightly live entertainment and other VIP entertainment for people who get a little bored of the action over at Flemington Racecourse. Meanwhile, for those who are all about the action, the annual Call of the Card brings bookmakers and bettors together for a night of posh odds making before heading to the track. The official “season” starts the first Tuesday of November annually.

The New Qantas Airbus A380s are the Limousines of Air Travel

From takeoff to landing, I experienced a smooth ride on this largest and most fuel-efficient plane in the sky. It’s not through some trick of mood music that the double-decker Airbus A380 seems quieter than other planes. Revolutionary Rolls-Royce high-bypass engines and airframe insulation actually cut the noise down to half of what we’re used to in a 747. As the airline specializing in long-haul routes from Australia, Qantas is under constant pressure to keep its flights comfortable, which is why it was first to introduce the Airbus A380 into its fleet, and why it recently retrained many of its on-the-ground and in-flight staff in the fine — and nearly lost — art of  customer service. While you do have to pay extra for ultimate comfort and style on a Qantas flight, you can still get an in-flight snack — and maybe even a smiling, helpful flight attendant — for the price of an economy ticket.

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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.

Tagged: Beach Vacation, Eco-Tourism, International Vacations

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