Australia & Fiji Trip Review
I’ve spent the last five weeks on vacation in Australia and Fiji and will spend the next 3 weeks working in Australia. I’ve enjoyed my trip – from the Sydney New Year’s Eve Fireworks to the amazing cafés in Melbourne and seeing Matisse in the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, to the relaxing beaches and pools of the Gold Coast and Fiji.
Australia is a very, very expensive country. I’ve been to Europe – Switzerland, Italy, and England – and none of them compare to Australia in my mind. Sydney has to be the most expensive city I’ve ever been to.
Tipping – most Australians don’t tip. I felt very awkward about this, given that everyone expects a tip in the US, and I asked many people and was told tipping just isn’t the norm. However, at fine restaurants, 10% is customary. It took me a long time to get used to this concept.
Taxis- all taxis take credit cards. This is very helpful.
Credit Cards – unlike taxis, credit cards aren’t widely accepted at most cafes and using your credit card is discouraged by most places that do accept them. Many places charge a fee to use a card – Subway restaurant charged me .50 cents to use my card on a $12 transaction. Hotels charge somewhere between 1% and 3% of the total bill if you pay by credit card at checkout. So, try to avoid unnecessary fees by using a card that doesn’t charge you an international transaction fee on top of everything else (Chase Sapphire Preferred or Amex Platinum).
ATMs – Find out if your bank has an international banking relationship with an Australian bank. I bank with Bank of America and they partner with WestPac, so I could use the ATM without getting charged any fees. This was very helpful because you need a lot of cash in Australia. In fact, I would suggest only exchanging a small amount of cash at an Exchange location and then getting cash out of an ATM if you can avoid the fees.
Day 1-3 – Sydney, Australia
I arrived in Sydney at 8am after flying from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Bangkok and Bangkok to Sydney. The trip took 36 hours (that included an unfortunate 8 -hour layover in Frankfurt) but I flew first class on Lufthansa and Thai Air, so it was worth it, in my opinion. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Potts Point Hotel for my first three days. The hotel was okay. I had a spectacular view from my room of the Sydney Opera House and Bridge, but there aren’t many great amenities at the Holiday Inn (see full review) Potts Point is less touristy, and therefore, a little less crowded and easy to get around and it offers a lot of café and restaurant choices. Potts Point is a nice area, but at night, it turns into the red-light district and there are a ton of nightclubs.
I spent the first three days recovering from jet lag and getting a feel for the city. I knew I was returning to Sydney at the end of the trip, so didn’t really do too many tourist type things these days.
Sydney is a very busy and crowded city with a heavy Asian influence. I found the people in the Central Business District (CBD) to be very pushy – especially on trains – and not overly friendly. Of course, there are always exceptions and I did encounter plenty of nice people, too! More on Sydney later in the report…
Day 4 – 13 – Melbourne, Australia
Nine days is way too much time to spend in Melbourne. It’s a great city, and there’s a lot to do, but I think 4-6 days would have been plenty. Melbourne is a much more European type of city with café lined streets and green areas. The city is Australia’s second largest and expected to outgrow Sydney within 10 years.
I stayed at the Melbourne Marriott and really loved it (I’m headed back during the Australian Open in mid-January) (see full review http://www.verygoodpoints.com/2011/12/melbourne-australia-marriott-review.html). The hotel was located a few blocks beyond the center of the city, which I enjoyed because it was a bit quieter.
The city is easy to get around because there are trolleys – they actually call them Trams – trains and plenty of taxis. I found the trains and train stations confusing. The trams are easy though, and the hotel was very helpful with directions.
There are many great museums in Melbourne and the Botanical Gardens are wonderful. I highly recommend a stop there. There are also some great restaurants – Longrain Melbourne – a Thai influenced restaurant on Little Bourke Street – was incredible and I could literally have eaten there a few times a week. I already have plans to go back. There were also great Asian restaurants in China Town – Spicy Fish is one of them – and dozens of dim sum restaurants (though they don’t call it Dim Sum, they call it Yum Cha). We also ate at Maze by Gordon Ramsay; however, the night we ate there was Gordon Ramsay’s last night affiliated with them. It was very good, but incredibly overpriced and the portion size is very, very small. Surprisingly, one of my better meals came at the restaurant in the Marriott Hotel.
There are many neighborhoods surrounding the CBD each with a different theme or cultural feel. There’s a huge Greek population, but surprisingly, my only Greek meal was very disappointing. Stalactites was recommended to me, and it was packed inside, but I found the food to lack flavour overall and all the meat was very, very tough. There’s an Italian area just north of the CBD and I had great food there. Lygon Street, north of Victoria, is lined with cafes and restaurants and I didn’t find a bad meal. Michellinos and Sergio Place were good. There’s also a Thai Restaurant there called Lemongrass and it’s great too.
Melbourne is worth a visit, but travel prepared – it can be cool in the summer and the temperatures can vary from day to day. Temperatures can be as high as 100 degrees or as low as 50 degrees for the high.
Day 14 – 20 – the Gold Coast and Brisbane, Australia
I spent half of my time on the Gold Coast at the Sheraton Mirage and Resort and the other half in Brisbane’s CBD. The drive between the Gold Coast and Brisbane is about an hour to hour and a half (depending on traffic and where you want to go) and can be an expensive trip.
The Gold Coast is a vacation destination for many Australians. I found it to be very similar to Hilton Head, SC, or the Daytona Beach/St Augustine, FL, area. Surfers Paradise is the most famous beach on the Gold Coast and the most touristy. There’s no doubt, the waves are spectacular and the beach is busy, but there’s not much more beyond the endless shops selling flip-flops, surf gear and beach trinkets. If you go to the Gold Coast, expect to spend your time either on the beach or by the pool, or at the amusement parks.
There are three major theme parks and a few water parks as well. Sea World is closest to the Sheraton and offers a different experience than Sea World in the US. I would have loved to take a Whale Watching trip from Sea World, but the season had just ended (early December). It’s expensive and much smaller than you’d expect. Dream World is a park that features characters from Sherk and the Wiggles and looked to be a combination of Universal and Six Flags. Movie World is Warner Brothers’ answer to the amusement park. They have rides and entertainment that feature The Green Lantern, Batman, Scooby-Doo and all of the WB characters. I didn’t make it to either Dream World or Movie World, but they looked like typical amusement parks.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any great recommendations for the Gold Coast. I spent 99% of my time there at my hotel pool. The bus system in the Gold Coast is not safe (or was not safe when I was there in Dec 2011) and the hotel recommended not using it. There are no trams like in Melbourne or Sydney, so you’re limited to taxis – and that can get expensive. If you don’t have a car, make sure you’re located centrally so you can walk! I was stuck up near Sea World at the Sheraton with few options – although there was an actual Hermes store in the Marina across from the Sheraton – I didn’t do much shopping though.
Getting from the Gold Coast to Brisbane without a car is challenging. Your options are the train – great if you’re not alone with a ton of luggage; taxi – not a great option if you hit traffic because it’s a metered fare; a rental car – could be good if you can get a decent one-way rental and are comfortable driving Down Under; or a town-car service which is a flat fare, but expensive. Taxi quoted me $200-$245 approximate fare from Sea World area to Brisbane CBD and the town car flat fare was $210. Guess which one I took? Turns out, the Town Car driver was very lovely and told me a lot about Australia and Brisbane and even drove me around the Brisbane CBD pointing out key sites before dropping me at my hotel.
Brisbane is a beautiful city situated directly on the river. Brisbane is much like Melbourne, very European feeling, and easy to get around. I visited the Gallery of Modern Art which had a Matisse exhibit and walked around the city and along the river. There is a hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tour that is a great value. You can get on at any stop and ride the bus from attraction to attraction getting off where you want, visiting the attractions, and then reboard on the next bus. It was a great way to see the city. Tip: save your receipt for a discount on a tour in another city. There was also a lovely outdoor shopping area with a pedestrian street filled with cafes.
While I was in Brisbane, I stayed at the Brisbane Marriott. (see full review) . It was in a great location, beautiful building and offered great view of the city and river.
Day 21 – 28 – Fiji
I departed Brisbane for Fiji on Air Pacific. Air Pacific offered the cheapest flights from Brisbane to Fiji. It turns out that the cheapest return was on Virgin Pacific. So I mixed and matched fares and airlines – which posed no problems for me with security or customs. I wouldn’t recommend Air Pacific. They fly very old planes that aren’t well maintained inside.
Upon arriving in Fiji, we were greeted by a Fijian band and directed to Immigration. The airport is small, and the line can be long at Immigration – however, I found that it didn’t really matter because we still had to wait for our baggage at baggage claim – first sign that things move at a different pace here. Once your bags finally arrive, you then have to go through security, where they scan your bags, and the process is very slow. My suggestion is to remember you’re in Fiji now and things just run slowly – because that’s how they like it.
I arranged a taxi through my hotel. The taxi was very inexpensive and the driver very friendly. On the ride from the airport to the resort, I was shocked by the level of poverty we saw. I’ve seen severe poverty in Thailand and other countries, but this was pretty startling. Once you arrive at the resort area (we were at Port Denarau), you’re in another world surrounded by million dollar homes, resorts, yachts and no sign of any poverty.
Fiji is a very quiet and laid back country. The air is fresh and the beaches are tranquil. The exchange rate is favorable for almost everyone –it was about $ .53 USD to 1 Fiji Dollar when I was there in Dec. So your money goes far. Fiji is definitely not as cheap as Thailand, but a great value nonetheless.
We spent most of our time by the pool, reading a book or just relaxing – that’s what you’re supposed to do in Fiji. But you can arrange for day tours to the islands or Fijian villages. I highly recommend participating in some sort of traditional Fijian experience. We went to a Fijian Cultural Show and Dinner on Christmas Eve and it was an marvelous way to spend the holiday. We got to see Fijian Fire Dancing while they cooked in a fire-pit dug into the ground.
The Fiji airport departures area is filled with duty free shops where you can buy just about anything. The waiting area is small and hot so don’t get there too early.
Day 29- 34 – Sydney Australia
I flew Virgin Australia back to Sydney on Christmas Day along with 30 other people. The huge plane was empty, the flight attendants were in a great mood and gave out free soft drinks (not something that usually happens on Virgin!) and the flight went pretty quickly. Upon arrival, I was shocked to see how empty the airport was. I walked right up to customs without any wait. Flying on Christmas Day has its benefits!
Unfortunately, the city was pretty much closed down for Christmas and Boxing Day. I stayed at the Westin Sydney (a remarkable hotel, see the full review) which was about 1 block from the Pitt Street Mall. On Boxing Day, I decided to check out the Pitt Street Mall – wow, was that a mistake. It felt like the entire city had descended upon the mall area and it was a wall of people everywhere you looked. Every store had lines formed outside with people waiting to get in. I have never seen anything like it in world.
There are a million things to do in Sydney. I would recommend taking the hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tour. I used my receipt from Brisbane to get a discount on my ticket. For $35, I had 24 hours to see the city from a double-decker bus. Tip: If you’re going to visit the Aquarium or Wildlife Center, get your tickets on the bus. They’re slightly discounted and they offer express passes so you don’t have to wait in the large lines at the Aquarium. (I wish I had done that! I waited for about 35 minutes in line at the Aquarium to get tickets.)
You can’t visit Sydney without going to the Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge. The views are astonishing. I would also suggest visiting the Rocks – if you are there on a weekend, there’s a great street fair. The Aquarium and Wildlife center are okay – personally I think the Atlanta Aquarium is better – but all the kids there seemed to be having fun. I did enjoy seeing the sharks and penguins at the Aquarium. The Wildlife Center – directly next door- had all of Australia’s indigenous animals – Kangaroos, Koalas, Kookaburra and more.
I had the chance to visit a few incredible restaurants and some other pretty good ones. There’s an endless amount of food options in Sydney. In Surrey Hills, we went to Monkey Magic for sushi and it was some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. We also had some of the Japanese main dishes and they were marvelous as well. I highly recommend it. We went to Soy in Bondi Beach – also Sushi – and while not as good as Monkey Magic, it was still enjoyable. The best part of Soy is the view – it’s directly across from the Ocean. There’s also a Longrain in Sydney – just as popular and busy as the one in Melbourne. Wagamama on Kings Warf in Darling Harbor is a great low-key Japanese Teriyaki and Noodle Restaurant –even though Wagamama is a chain restaurant, it sure doesn’t feel like one.
One of the other best kept secrets of the city, in my opinion, is the Westfield (yes, as in the malls) food court. It’s not a food court like you’re used to – it’s a high-end, boutique type of eatery. I found Dergah Middle Eastern Grill to be delicious. There’s also Din Tai Fung Express. Din Tai Fung is a famous dim sum restaurant and this location offers the same great dumplings! Loved it!
I had the opportunity to stay in Sydney through New Years and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. Watching the fireworks in Sydney Harbor and Darling Harbor was extraordinary. You have to get out early to get a good viewing location – or pay a high price to get into a hotel or restaurant with a great view- but seeing the fireworks in Sydney from a great location is an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.
Day 35 – this is where my vacation comes to an end and I return to work.
Australia is a huge country and there are a lot of things to see and do. It’s a relatively young country, and it felt like it was missing some of the history you can find in Europe or Asia or other parts of the world. I found it more similar to the US than I thought I would – aside from the accent – and even though I had a good time, probably wouldn’t return for vacation again. Whereas I’ve been to Thailand twice on vacation and would go back again, have been to Alaska & Hawaii twice and would go back again and can list about a dozen other places I’d like to go to for the first time rather than come back to Australia.
Gold Coast Australia
Fiji Fire Dancers at Westin Denarau Resort
Syndey, Auatralia Architecture
Sydney Wildlife Center – Koalas
Sydney Wildlife Center – Crocs!
Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks
Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks