Cover Story

Summer in Sydney

It's affordable to travel Down Under during the (American) summer, and Australia still has much to offer tourists during its winter

Issue: "Cool hot spots," May 17, 2003

OFF SEASON. FOR SPORTS FANS, IT means bleak months of sorry sitcoms until the boys of summer return to TV. For fashion slaves, it means bagging up those white clothes after Labor Day. But for travelers, off-season means it's time to get going.

If there's one verse the travel industry believes in fervently, it's Ecclesiastes 3:1: "For everything there is a season." There's high season and low season, which seem straightforward enough. Peak season and off-peak seem straightforward as well, but they're not necessarily the same as high and low. Holiday season means you'll pay more to travel around Christmas or the 4th of July. And then there's something called "shoulder season," which is basically equivalent to "none of the above."

The bad news for American travelers is that most nearby destinations go into high-price, high-season mode just when we're ready to start packing: summer vacation. The exceptions are few and far between. Miami is about 20 percent cheaper in July than in January, so if you're dying to see where Versace was shot, this is your chance to save a few bucks. Hotels in New Orleans cut summer rates by up to 40 percent, but the heat and humidity climb by about 80 percent, so it hardly seems like an even trade. And summer weather in the Caribbean is so unpredictable that even the cruise ships high-tail it to calmer waters.

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Is it possible to find bargain prices and decent weather in the same place? Yes, but you'll have to look a bit further afield-like halfway around the world, maybe.

As big as the continental United States, it would take a lifetime to explore properly, but if you're like most Americans you'll have maybe a week. If you can spare two, a week in New Zealand (see p. 22) and a week in Australia make the perfect itinerary, and possibly the best value, to boot.

During Australian summer (American winter), you'll have a hard time getting Down Under for less than $2,500. In the off months of June, July, and August, however, prices drop by more than half. Both Qantas and Air New Zealand offer special deals on their American websites, but the smaller Kiwi airline seems to try harder. This August, for instance, you can fly from Los Angeles to Australia for $985-plus get a free stopover in Auckland.

No matter where you want to go in Australia, you'll almost certainly have to land in Sydney first. That's just as well, because it happens to be among the world's great cities, one of those rare places where human ingenuity has perfectly complemented the landscape. A stunning coastline wraps the city in water. Step out of your hotel, start walking blindly in any direction, and you'll probably hit the water in less than 20 minutes. While private hotels and condominiums might hog the coastline in many cities, Sydney's waterfront is marked by wide pedestrian promenades dotted with shops, restaurants, and parks.

Where there's no promenade, there's probably a beach. Sydney boasts 70 of them, by official count-70 reasons why the city is so expensive from about November through March. The beach is a key part of Sydney's lifestyle, and certainly a part that most tourists want to experience. But if you're willing to forgo the famous Aussie lifeguards, the waterfront is just as beautiful in the winter when the water itself is too cold for swimming.

Since swimming is out, the best way to enjoy the waterfront is at the Sydney Domain, a 30-hectare (or about 74-acre) park on the edge of the harbor. Established in 1816, the Domain is technically a scientific institution that boasts one of the world's leading collection of plants. But no one really comes here to read the placards; the views out toward the water and the Harbor Bridge are just too distracting. You can spend a day wandering through the themed sections of the park (the palm grove, rose garden, and Oriental garden were my favorites), or bring a book and doze in the sun. It's the perfect way to recover from a brutal case of jet lag. Even in August, the depths of Australian winter, you can often wear shorts during the day and a light sweater at night.

The Domain abuts the Sydney Opera House, one of the most-photographed buildings in the world. But no picture yet has done justice to the gleam of the sun on the silver-white "sails" that make up the roofline, or their contrast with the perfect blue of the harbor. Except for a quick lunch, I passed my entire first day in Sydney, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., without spending a dime-just wandering the crescent-shaped waterfront from the Domain to the Harbor Bridge, admiring the Opera House from changing angles and in changing light. (If you deserve a splurge, however, stop at the Park Hyatt in the shadow of the bridge. High tea with a Sydney sunset may just be the definition of a civilized life.)

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