My paradise: The land down under

by Brian "Irish" Porter
Stripes Korea

Editor's note: This story appeared in 2015 edition of Destination Paradise. We are now accepting stories for the 2016 edition, which hits the streets in February. Submit your story and photos to paradise@stripes.com by Jan. 8, 2016, and we'll make you famous!

We will never be closer …”

This was the practical notion that began our fanciful journey of a lifetime – a 10-day, 9-night sojourn to Australia. With such a small window to see a continent, we were concerned that we’d spend our time travelling as opposed to experiencing, and so enlisted the help of the experts at Camp Zama’s International Tours of Travel Office. Our trip planning professional Larry provided us with a menu of places and events to choose from, along with many helpful suggestions and consistent, responsive service. We climbed aboard the Narita shuttle and were shortly winging our way across the Pacific, crossing the equator and landing at Sydney’s international airport.

Sydney
We found our transportation waiting for us, and we quickly got settled in our fine accommodations at the Grace Hotel, only blocks away from the heart of Sydney. After knocking about the downtown, including a pleasant stroll through Hyde Park to visit the ANZAC memorial (dedicated to the brave soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought in the Great War), we arrived at circular quay to board our night’s introduction to Sydney and Australia – a dinner cruise around the harbor with Captain Cook Cruises.

The food was excellent, and the views spectacular (the duet providing music to dine and dance by even took requests). We walked home, enjoying an “evening constitutional” and the bustle of a city whose nightlife was just getting started. As we wanted to get some rest before our trek into the Blue Mountains, we grabbed breakfast from a convenience store and turned in.

Our guide took us first to the Featherdale Wildlife Park in the morning when the residents are most active. We had the opportunity to get up close and personal with kangaroos and koalas, learning about them in a very open, accessible environment. Having watched too many cartoons in my misspent youth, I was fully prepared to defend myself and my bride from any aggressive kangaroos who should want to box.

Contrary to this mistaken belief, the “roos” were quite personable and were more interested in what we had to feed them than going a few rounds (I was relieved since I’m pretty sure that I’d get the worse end of that exchange).

We visited a family winery and enjoyed an introduction to the local vintages. If you take this option, ensure you have a decent breakfast and take your time during the tasting (or risk ending up snoozing in the back of the tour bus as the rest of your touring mates leave you behind on their “walkabouts”).

We climbed into the mountains and stopped to explore the “Three Sisters” in the Hunter Valley, following well groomed trails through the Eucalyptus trees out onto a great ledge to marvel at the 300-degree view of the lushly treed canyon and the prominent outcroppings that lend their name to the site. What a great place to stretch the legs and take in the scenery.

Melbourne
We left the refinements of Sydney and New South Wales to explore the natural beauty of Victoria, hopping a flight to Melbourne and venturing out to Wilson’s Promontory. Hiking past a dirt strip well looked after by kangaroos and up a few hundred feet to the crest of Mount Oberon, we were treated to a panoramic view of Norman Bay and the mighty South Pacific Ocean – and felt like we were looking at the very edge of the earth.

Below us stretched the beaches that General MacArthur rebuilt his shattered army on, using the tough terrain to prepare the American forces for the long campaign ahead; training in Australia and then into action at New Guinea, the Philippines and beyond.

The bush here is thick with brush and wildlife, and by moving quietly along the trail we were treated to the sight of many flora and fauna – including a close encounter of the wombat kind! After giving right of way to our near-sighted friend, we followed the trail down to Squeaky Beach (aptly named for the rounded quartz crystals that are noisy when trod upon) before heading back into town.

Old Melbourne Gaol (we’d spell it “jail”) a Victorian-era prison where famed Australian rogue Ned Kelly swung from a hangman’s noose was a bit campy, but good fun. You can walk through the museum, or take the tour by way of being “booked” into the cell blocks by a surly warden and experience a bit of what the facility held for those who were once incarcerated there.

Although it was challenging to rise from a soft bed in the grey of dawn to catch our ride out to the vineyards, the experience of sunrise balloon flight over the Yarra Valley was well worth the effort. After a short safety briefing, the 10 of us aeronauts followed the pilot’s instructions to prepare the balloon for flight.

With a gentle breeze to guide us to the east, we ascended to 2,000 feet above the patchwork quilt of fields and forests to hail a spectacular daybreak. The silent drifting of the balloon and the tapestry slowly emerging before us took our breath and conversation away from us. We alighted all too soon in a friendly farmer’s field and set about packing up the balloon, feeling like old hands after our morning’s team effort.

Brisbane
We were introduced to Brisbane’s “Gold Coast” and the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef during our stay at Tangalooma island resort on Moreton Island, where there were rainforest trails to hike and sandy beaches to explore. The nightly highlight is feeding the dolphins, so make your reservation for this experience as soon as you get on the island as space is limited. There are several dining choices on island, and the open-air café serves a great grilled barramundi. We polished this delicate white fish off with a Queensland chardonnay and toasted another stunning sunset in paradise.

Cairns
In retrospect, we had saved the best for last: Cairns and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We checked into the beautiful, Balinese-inspired Bay Village Tropical Retreat, and then spent very little time in our room. We kicked our comfortable vacation into high gear and threw ourselves into the wild and wooly offerings found in and around Cairns.

The rainforest has many delights, easily accessed through the Kuranda scenic railway, the gondolas of the high-flying Skyrail, and the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. The culture park was both informative and entertaining as the docents there were from aboriginal families raised in the back country or the rainforests, and they were a joy to talk with and learn about their tribe’s unique culture.

If you are so inclined, they’ll even teach you how to (safely) throw a boomerang – bystanders beware! Whitewater rafting on the Barron River with Raging Thunder Adventure Tours was a great experience, and our guide ensured we had everything we needed to complete an exhilarating trip through soaring river gorges and frothing wet madness in one piece!

We were unsure how to top this, but our trip by catamaran to the Agincourt Reef and Quicksilver’s diving platform certainly didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed the swift ride to the well-designed and highly functional dive center, learning about the reef and what we might expect to see along the way. After suiting up with snorkeling gear (included in your ticket, and very well maintained), we followed our guide on an hour tour of the reef, taking in an amazing array of sea life. We then enjoyed a brief respite, lunching on a great spread of seafood and fresh fruit.

Then back into the water we went. We were glad that we brought our underwater camera gear as we swam alongside the corals and within great schools of colorful fish. We even wound up in a race with a surprisingly maneuverable green sea turtle (I lost). The clock raced away from us as well, and we boarded Quicksilver’s 4-place helicopter for a low-level flight back to Cairns, where we saw wrecks and reefs, sharks, rays and turtles galore.

The only conundrum was how to top off a day like this, and after a leisurely (and scrumptious) meal and a pint in a “friendly local” named P.J. Obrien’s on Lake Street, we walked home via Alpin street, where we discovered what may well be the best gelato in the world: chocolate, whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur-flavored heaven, served up in a waffle cone by the friendly staff of the family-owned Devine Gelato.

We drifted off to sleep with fond memories of our Aussie adventure, and began plotting our return on the northbound leg back to Japan and reality. Without a doubt, the effort and time spent in getting to the great “Down Under” was well worth it, and we found our many shades of paradise all right there. Australia is indeed a land for the bold adventurer in all of us, as unconstrained and wild as the limitless horizon of the outback. You’ll never be closer …

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