Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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TRAVEL UP UNDER

Getting to the heart of the Australia craze in Melbourne and Sydney
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Admonitions from travel bugs who say that popular Australia is old hat don’t bother me. These people are probably right about its being the next Hawaii, and I envy the trips they made to Melbourne and the reef 15 years ago, “now” voyagers that they were. But they miss the point. Australia is at such a pitch at this moment that to skip it is to defy gravity, although that’s what going Down Under is all about. And while the trendies are trekking the outback and the people who never miss the U.S. Open have cornered rooms in Perth for “the Cup,” Australia’s largest urban incarnations, Sydney and Melbourne, hold the key to why everybody is screaming about the place.

I politely laughed at the friendly rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney because each is so delightful and neither needs boasting. But the if-you-want-to-know-the-truthers wouldn’t keep quiet. “Melbourne’s all right,” a young woman in a park in Sydney told me, “if you like the bush.” The seaside city of Melbourne, in the southern state of Victoria, with a population of nearly three million, doesn’t approximate the bush, although it is, of course, quieter than Sydney. It’s also a little slower, which is what its devotees want the visitor to appreciate.

“I tried living in Sydney, but it was too much,” I was told by a young accountant whom I met in a Melbourne restaurant and who said he knew I’d like Melbourne better. “You can do almost everything here that you can do there, but here it’s not so crazy.” I stayed in the excellent Regent Hotels in each city, and nothing rivals a sibling rivalry. Not only were the two hotels competitively replete with splendorous restaurants and fastidious service, but all strata of staff seemed bent on conveying not only that theirs was the only place to spend the night (it was tempting to agree), but that their city was the only one in Australia you needed to see.

Melbourne turned out to be more of a city than I expected. The Melbourne Regent starts on the 35th floor of one of the tallest , buildings in Australia, the east tower of the twin-towers Collins Place complex in the center of town. The buildings are a startling sight at first, dwarfing everything around them. But in the full cityscape they typify Melbourne’s harmonious blending of old and new. From my 50th-floor window I could see the easy spread of the city below, amorphous with endless parks and gardens that slope vaguely to the nearby sea. From high or low, Melbourne is unified by its Victorian architecture; it has more than any city in Australia and its presence is profoundly calming-solid, a vital link to the past. The tall buildings help to set the sidewalk pace, but it’s surely the orderly gingerbreads, demanding a happy glance, that keep the pace benign.

Melbourne bustles, but gently. I was there in early March-their autumn-and the city was unmistakably invigorated by the subtly changing seasons. The temperatures hung in the 70s and 80s during the day, hot enough for several briefcase-toting businessmen to wear dapper shorts and take sun in the park at lunch; cool enough to be busy, busy. Shoppers everywhere scouted the boutiques and department stores for first glimpses of winter fashions from Sydney and the U.S. At the bold Victorian Arts Centre (which includes the National Gallery of Victoria and the Melbourne Concert Hall), the brand-new “the Theatres” complex buzzed with artists and technicians propping for a frantic, highly anticipated season of theater, opera and dance. Outside the Centre, across the Yarra River, one of the city’s largest parks was alive with carnival and concert, the annual Moomba festival.

The word “Moomba” comes from the aboriginal dialect and means “let’s get together and have fun,” which the locals translate into outdoor art shows, games, concerts, drama performances and water-sport displays. I strolled into the park late one night as Moomba throbbed with rock concerts and dizzying amusement rides. It seemed surprisingly friendly, given that there were thousands upon thousands in attendance. Teen-agers smiled and old men, unruffled by the chaos, ate cotton candy. It was peaceable madness. And something else was striking about the scene: the ethnic diversity. Post-war immigrants-mainly from Britain, Italy, Greece, West Germany, Holland and Poland-have indelibly shaped the community, from cuisine to architecture and politics. Approximately one million residents were born, or their parents were born, in other parts of the world, making Melbourne the most cosmopolitan of all Australian cities.

Melbourne’s proximity to the sea and the hills makes it a worthwhile starting point for countless enjoyable day trips. I enjoyed my trip south to Phillip Island to see the penguins come ashore from their day’s swim as they do every evening at dusk-thousands upon thousands of them. The little fellows (everybody calls them little fellows) materialize at the glowing shoreline on a protected section of beach-three here, five there-until you’re seeing more penguins than beach. A good number of them make their way up a roped-off path that cuts right through the craning crowd, waddling on the offbeat back to their grassy nests on the hillsides. This event is highly touristy, no de-nying (second only to Sydney’s Opera House); it’s as much for people-watching as for the penguin-watching. The “aw-ing” of the audience didn’t seem to bother the small gray birds (although bright flashes of light apparently do, hence a “no flashbulbs” rule), but the strange looks on their faces made me think they thought we were crazy. In fact, it struck me as altogether likely that the penguins were taking this famous stroll each night to watch us.

Close to the great outdoors without giving up the frenetic energy of the city-that defined my Australian experience, and it may well be the thing that defines modern Australia, that characterizes its energy and its appeal to Americans who expect that kind of life but are more and more frequently deprived of it. Melbourne, even in its most urban nooks, offered pockets of pastoral refreshment-small parks, quaint churches, a glimpse of the river down a narrow, shady street. Burgeoning Sydney, up the coast to the north, is busting its big-city gut, but doing so in the middle of a wealth of water and beaches. As a friend of mine said, the harbor sticks its nose in everywhere, with Sydney clinging tight to the jagged coastline, jumping the harbor, filling in the nooks and crannies everywhere. The water is always near and Sydney is a water town. Bright days (and most are) fill the central harbor with hundreds of sailboats. Warmer months bring out the windsurfers and skiers. There are about 20 good beaches in or near the metropolitan area that become speckled with sun worshipers in October.

The sea holds Australia captive, and holds captive its imagination. The need to tame the mighty South Pacific is personified in the near-mythical figure of the Aussie lifesaver. They say every boy in Australia dreams of growing up to be one of these somber-faced heroes of the surf. The unpaid lifesavers, who make our American lifeguards look like babysitters (flabby ones at that), belong to clubs, or teams, that, when not patrolling beaches, compete against one another in contests of boating, swimming and general physical strength. At the yearly surf carnivals at the aptly named Manly Beach, thousands of spectators marvel at these sexy, spirited supermen who, more than guarding lives, guard the Australian ideal of muscles earned by dutiful labor.

There is something very physical about Australians. Even the most urban of urban animals I saw had lean, athletic bodies, tight, tanned skin and ruddy complexions. Labor and sweat seem built into the Aussie constitution, part of their gene pool. And in the sun-ripened faces there is something else: a tranquility, a peace made with the elements, with nature. The men and women, boys and girls I saw all seemed as ready for the outdoors as the indoors.

Sydney itself embraces the water and the sky, its sprawling bay anchoring a healthy hodgepodge of glass and steel spikes shooting toward the Southern heavens. From major thoroughfares you spy the water. Every morning, rush-hour ferries speed workers from one side of the harbor to the other. Sidewalks are wide. Parks are used by everyone. And the sunshine, as in Southern California, abounds. Sydney races from one day to the next, vital with commerce, fashion and bounding civic will, but never in too much of a hurry to savor the day.

Not to dismiss the nights. Sydney’s nightlife is far from provincial. Good restaurants and clubs are scattered throughout town, on both sides of the main harbor, and there seems to be at least one for every inclination. Night crawlers can pound certain downtown streets all evening, never running out of new watering holes and dance factories. Kings Cross, a small neighborhood of shady streets, ethnic cafe’s and junk food stores, springs to life each night as Sydney’s favorite “adult” neighborhood, filled with bars, burlesque clubs and shops.

Another popular part of the city at night, Paddington, moves to the menacing beat of Sydney’s savvy youth scene. Here you see the outrageous clothes, the slinking punks and the seedy doorways that lead to New Wave dives and offbeat boutiques. Paddington also has several tiny cafe’s and restaurants that reminded me of those in New York’s Greenwich Village-funky, strangely colored, very casual. I also found in Paddington an innovative bookshop that opens at nine each night and stays open until two. Regulars to Paddington frequently stop in for a book-browsing respite from barhopping.

Sydney is rightfully proud, and inimitable. It’s friendlier than any city of four million people has a right to be. It’s brash, trendy, hard-working. It shows bold international opportunism tempered by genteel English good manners. Charming and charmed. And the people who live there know it. “Like us if you like,” they seem to say, “but we’re getting on just fine as is.” No apologies, no explanations. “Right, mate?”

The American bond with Australia right now is notable and peculiar. There’s not much to be said about our two countries’ relationship as far as global politics go. It’s a friendly enough alliance, with spasmodic, relatively inconsequential tensions. Which makes the other links all the more interesting. American tourism in Australia is booming. For the 12-month period ending August ’84, their tourist commission reported 155,000 visitors from the U.S., a sizeable 15-percent increase from the year before. The bureau is anticipating an amazing 15-percent jump on that figure for ’84-85. Australian officials are estimating that enough Americans will descend upon Perth alone during the America’s Cup yacht races (which begin prelims in October of 1986 and reach their Challenger/Defender climax the following January) to test that city’s accommodations capacity.

At the same time, more Australians than ever are coming to the U.S. An unusually high percentage of the Australian population travels abroad, apparently because of the country’s psychological as well as geographical isolation. But whereas until recently an Australian leaving the realm of the Pacific would most likely pay Stepmother England a cocky call, more Australian tourists are snipping the apron strings and choosing to see America first. About 142,000 Australians came to the States last year, representing 11 percent of all Australians who travel overseas. That makes us their fourth most popular destination behind the statistical categories of “total Oceania,” “total Asia” (not counting Japan) and their nearest neighbor, New Zealand. England ranks sixth, behind Europe.

It has become increasingly hard for an American to find warm receptions away from home, so the flat-out friendliness of the Australians came as a disorienting and refreshing surprise, even though I was told to expect it. The goodwill was overflowing, the graciousness natural. It’s true that Australia, floating off by itself like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, would find it easier to hold few grudges against the U.S. But that same isolation leaves them neutral toward many nations and many politics. There is something more that attracts us to one another, an odd polar kinship between our two lands-each young, rebellious, wealthy-based not only on similarities between us, but also on the great distance we bridge. Practicing arm-in-arm camaraderie halfway around the world shows unusual strength and limber-ness. It’s a kind of stunt, gravity defied.

There’s certainly another way of looking at it. Australia is a showoff, as cocksure and cheeky as the guy on the “g’day” TV commercials. Carrying the weight of its penal colony heritage on its sunburned shoulders, remote from the sophistication and imperious headiness of England, Australia has spent a lot of time proving itself, even by defiantly refusing to prove itself. Australia boasts its wealth and health and savvy with a gutsiness that flies in the pallid face of Great Britain. Now that the U.S. is the measuring stick of modern capitalist success, Australia has taken a fancy to unfancy us. But the see-whatcan-do attitude remains.

Maybe what Australia has in common with America, aside from a pioneer heritage, is the belief that it’s blessed. And these days, Australia, way down under, does seem on top of the world. The Australian High may last for years to come, but the Australians’ eagerness to share it with us may not. That’s the thing to go for, this bounty and mile-high enthusiasm, and that’s the reason to go now. The tourism commission’s success stories shouldn’t scare anyone. There’s an awful lot of Australia for the discovering, even on the well-trodden paths. Not even Sydney feels tourist-cramped. The spaces are still broad, the discoveries wildly varying. And the Australian spirit is too bold for our funny accents and auto-rewind cameras to diminish.

The cost of getting to Australia has become less prohibitive. The number of luxuryaccommodations and personalized travelplans has risen dramatically. Options keepmultiplying, kangaroos keep hopping. ButAustralia won’t be fresh forever. Now is thetime to get down.

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