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.
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.)
The art deco Harbor Bridge is nearly as beautiful as the Golden Gate, even if it's less colorful. Tethering up to a cable and climbing the bridge is one of the hot tourist activities in Sydney, but I opted for the view from Centrepoint Tower, which boasts a revolving restaurant nearly 1,000 feet above the city. The food wasn't particularly memorable, but the sight of Sydney by night more than made up for a lack of salt.
On Days 2 and 3 you'll find plenty of activities to keep you busy, from harbor cruises to architectural tours, but Sydney, like Paris, is best enjoyed without a car, an itinerary, or even a map. Just get out and wander the safe, clean streets where Victorian confections harmonize with clean, modernist masterpieces. Every major designer in the world has a boutique on Sydney's tree-lined streets, and prices are often very competitive, thanks to the weak Australian dollar. Still, you'll often find the best deals along Oxford Street, where the local talent will fit you out in home-grown leathers and woolens of their own design.
As for food, Sydney rivals New York in both quality and innovation, but restaurants in the Big Apple generally can't compete when it comes to ambience. Don't leave without having dinner in Darling Harbor, for instance, where a perfect evening might consist of fresh-caught seafood enjoyed on a broad terrace right at the harbor's edge, with the lights of the city skyline reflected on the calm, black water.
If it still seems wrong to fly thousands of miles without sampling Australia's famous beaches, don't worry: Winter in Sydney is the perfect time to visit the tropical capital of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The flight to Cairns takes about three hours, but when you step off the plane you'll be in another world, as if you left New York and ended up on Maui.
Cairns is a pleasant enough city, but you're best off driving an hour north to the laid-back beach town of Port Douglas. It's a great drive, with steep, lush mountains on your left and the Pacific Ocean on your right. If you especially like the mountains, stop just outside Cairns for a ride in a gondola that skims along the top of the rainforest canopy. It's a beautiful, educational introduction to an amazing ecosystem.
If you give yourself three days' beach time, be sure to book your tour of the Great Barrier Reef on Day One. Otherwise, you may get so used to the long, relaxing days that you're tempted to forgo the Reef all together. That would be a shame, because it's every bit as incredible as people say-and then some. Most reef tours take a full day and include roundtrip transportation from your hotel, plus lunch and snorkling equipment. It may seem like a long day on paper, but once you're in the water, time glides by as smoothly and elusively as the exotic fish that stay just beyond your reach.
When it comes time to hit the beach, you'll be glad you chose "off season" Australia. Winter is actually high season in the tropical north, because summer days can be oppressively hot and muggy. You may find heavier crowds, but you'll avoid the jellyfish that terrorize swimmers during the summer. (In the hottest months, lifeguards actually have to put bottles of vinegar on the beach so swimmers can treat their frequent stings.)
In the evenings, Port Douglas comes alive with restaurants, shops, and art galleries that spill out onto a busy boardwalk. It's a low-key, comfortable place-more like North Carolina's Outer Banks than Florida's Gold Coast. And since no one does laid-back hospitality like the Aussies, you're sure to think about extending your stay for another week. Or two.