Image: Sydney's Bondi Beach
Glenn Adams  /  AP
Beachogers and surfers walk on Bondi Beach, Sydney's most famous, where the tradition of lifesaving clubs is proudly preserved and the sport of surfing is passed down from generation to generation.
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updated 10/4/2007 12:25:35 PM ET 2007-10-04T16:25:35

Yes, the ride is long, real long.

That's the short answer to the first question they ask when you say you've been to Australia. It's about 14 hours from Los Angeles to Brisbane. For me, a few steps up and down the aisle, a few catnaps, a couple of movies. Stretched my legs under the seat now and then, trying not to bother the guy in front.

Is it worth the little discomforts? Bloody right!

When we landed, a new day had just begun — G'day — and the wonders of the land down under lay before us: Watching a stingray glide before my eyes as I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef. Seeing little blue penguins muster at nightfall at the Southern Ocean's edge for their ritual march to their nests. Black swans. A wallaby springing across an open field. Up above, the Southern Cross. And bungee-jumping in New Zealand.

My wife and I had left a northeastern U.S. winter behind to complete a long-unfinished mission. Working as editors on an ocean liner 28 years earlier, Betty and I had sailed to five continents, missing Australia. We decided now it was time to go. We worked in a stay in New Zealand in a package arranged by our travel agent. We have never been much for escorted tours, but with so many attractions spread over a vast area, and limited time (two weeks), we opted for a tour with Globus. And we met nice people, locals and tour-mates, along the way — including an Atlanta couple who married at the famed Sydney Opera House — with us among the witnesses.

Like other Aussie cities, Sydney is walker-friendly, with tons of shops and closed-street malls. Navigating the excellent public transit system is easy; we took a bus to the famed Bondi (bond-EYE) Beach, a surfing hot spot outside the city. While things aren't cheap by U.S. standards, deals can be found, like the Australian $10 steak dinner along a canopied sidewalk off the beach. For a beer (a popular local brand is Victoria Bitter) count on spending at least $3.50. Opera house tours run about $28.

For adventure, you'll pay more, like $150 to scale the Sydney Harbor Bridge arch, using catwalks and ladders while harnessed for safety. (We opted out, but a walkway along the bridge's highway-level span is free, and still offers a magnificent view. Downtown, you can harness up for Sydney Skywalk — a walk on the roof of the Sydney Tower, about 800 feet above the city, well above the bridge's crest.)

Slideshow: Explore New Zealand A round-trip ferry ride from the harbor to Manly Beach, where surfers were riding wild waves, set us back about $9. It was worth the fare given the view — including a sailboat race and flotilla of other pleasure craft, not to mention a look at the Sydney Opera House from the water. At the beach, February's late-summer water was in the 70s, so the swimming was fine. The sun was strong; don't forget sunscreen, and consider wearing a T-shirt in the water.

That rule made even more sense in the tropical north in Cairns, a Coral Sea resort town of about 120,000 and jumping-off spot for the 1,300-mile Great Barrier Reef. Catamarans run regularly from the marina to Green Island, where even snorkeling novices can easily see brilliantly colored tropical fish, and with luck, a stingray or two. Tours can be booked to more remote spots along this natural wonder.

In town, canopies cover sidewalks along the main streets, so walking even at midday is pleasant. But an early-morning stroll along Cairns' seaside promenade and park is a must. A white-sand beach, with lifeguards, has been created along an inlet that's cut off from the open sea but still offers the feel of an ocean dip.

Beyond the sugar cane plantations spread over the lowlands outside the city, rain forests take over where the Kuranda Range rises. We rode a gondola to the mountaintop for a guided walk in the lush rain forest of towering red penda Kauri pine and maple silkwood trees, supplejack vines and many other varieties. The walk included views of the wild Barron Falls below. A ride by cable car, train or a combination costs about $90.

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A north-to-south flight to Melbourne, the cooler and proud capital of the state of Victoria, gave us a sweeping airborne view of the Outback, its orange terrain etched by access roads and dotted by an occasional settlement.

If Cairns is where Australians play, Melbourne is where they work. The metropolis has 3.2 million people — the country's second-biggest city — and even shopkeepers can't hide their sense of competition with Sydney, which is the most populous. Melbourne is a city of tram cars, one of which offers free rides around a perimeter downtown with stops at sites such as Fitzroy Gardens, where Capt. Cook's cottage has been relocated. The waterfront along the Yarra River is lined with restaurants and shops and, for those so inclined, the grand Crown Casino.

A few extra bucks — $60 — gave us an evening look at the city from a 1927-vintage tram car converted with burgundy carpeting and velvet seats into a rolling restaurant. Dinner started with champagne and wine and a choice of entrees. I tried pepper-crusted kangaroo — not bad, but I went heavy on the spicy sauce.

If you're flying from Australia to New Zealand (less than three hours) and you don't have a window seat, try to swap for one. Beg if you must. I lucked out. The clear day offered breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains of "The Lord of the Rings" land below as we flew toward Christchurch on the South Island.

The English influence is unmistakable in this tidy, garden-happy city tucked into the island's east coast. Like Australian cities, it is built for walkers, with pedestrian street-crossing control buttons. Looming majestically over a pedestrian-only square is the city's centerpiece, Christchurch Cathedral. Inside, lookout balconies offer great views of the city.

No visit is complete without a walk through the Botanical Gardens, whose paths lead walkers along the Avon River. If you want to ride, punting is the answer; you can glide along the river in a flat-bottomed gondola guided by young men outfitted in straw boaters who propel the craft along with long poles, Venice-style. School had just let out as we strolled along, and the paths streamed with young boys in striped jackets carrying cricket bats.

But Queenstown, inland and to the west, is where the action begins. The road trip there is one visual exclamation point after another: Huge "stations" or ranches in the flatlands lead to rolling highlands, dense forests and finally towering peaks that even in the summer shed their snowmelt into countless cascades spilling down the mountainsides.

Our drive into this small city — about 15,000 year-round residents balloon to several times that during busier seasons — took us past a row of booking agents offering rafting, river surfing, sailing, jet boat riding, paragliding, hang-gliding, canyon hiking, cycling, sky-diving and more. Up for nude (or semi-nude) bungee jumping? They'll book you here, the world's bungee-jumping capital. I chose to leap with clothes on, from a platform 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the city and gleaming Lake Wakapitu. Their advice as I peered to the ledge below: "You don't need to look where you're going."

The step over the edge was worth the price — about New Zealand $150.

If you've gone this far, book a ride to Milford Sound, the glacier-carved fjord about five hours from Queenstown. Tour boats give you breathtaking vistas of tall peaks and close-up looks at sheer rock face and cascades splashing to the inlet.

Moviegoers taken by the scenery in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy can take any of a variety of tours through the spectacular filming locations.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Awesome Australia

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  1. The sacred monolith of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is located in Central Australia's Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is a World Heritage site. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Be careful going down the road in Western Australia. There could be camels, wombats or kangaroos trying to cross. (Nick Rains / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A kangaroo stands next to a rare waterhole as sheep gather and look for food on a station near White Cliffs in the state of New South Wales. (William West / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tourists look at spectacular cathedral termite mounds in the Litchfield National Park near Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. Often visible along the Northern Territory, also know as the "Top End" highways, they are amongst the largest mounds built by termites anywhere in the world and are reminiscent of mediaeval cathedrals. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A koala rests on a branch at Sydney Wildlife World, which features Australian flora and fauna set amongst natural habitats and ecosystems. Koalas feed almost exclusively on tough, toxic eucalyptus leaves, which they can digest because they have the longest gut for their size of any mammal. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Located near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, the East MacDonnell Ranges Aerial are part of the remains of mountains that once went as high as the Himalayas. The East MacDonnell's are more varied and less crowded than the more popular West McDonnell Range. (Brian Geach / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Visitors stand on a cantilever at the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk tourist attraction that overlooks rainforest and coastline in the center in the Illawarra region, south of Sydney, in Australia's New South Wales. The Illawarra region gets its special character from the way the escarpment meets the sea. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pinnacles, ancient limestone formations, rise out of the sand in Nambung National Park. There are thousands of pillars in this Western Australian area, which offer photographers images at sunrise and sunset. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Three Sisters jut out of the Blue Mountains near Katoomba, New South Wales. The character of the rock formation changes as the sunlight brings out magnificent color.
    According to Aboriginal legend, there were three sisters in the Katoomba tribe who were in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers were not happy with this law and used force to capture the sisters, which caused a battle.
    A witchdoctor turned the sisters into stone to protect them from harm, but he was killed before he could reverse the spell. And so the sisters remained in the rock formation. (Lincoln Fowler / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The large leaves of the Canna x generalis flowering plant from the Cannaceae family display their unusual coloring in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens were founded on their current site by Governor Macquarie in 1816 and is the oldest scientific institution in Australia, playing a major role in the acclimatization of plants from other regions. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A droving team heads off from camp during the Great Australian Cattle Drive preview on May 7, 2009, in Oodnadatta, Australia. The Great Australian Cattle Drive takes place July 30-Aug. 29, 2010, and offers the general public the chance to experience an Australian adventure. (Quinn Rooney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Many residents of opal mining town Coober Pedy, Australia, live underground in dugout homes. The Underground Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the town's must-see sites and includes rock carvings in the walls, a high-roof ballroom-style design and stained glass windows. (Quinn Rooney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A young indigenous performer during the Yeperenye Federation Festival on Sept. 9, 2001, in Alice Springs, Central Australia. The Yeperenye Festival involves traditional elders with thousands of dancers, artists, singers, musicians and spectators, who gather at Blatherskite Park on the traditional lands of the Arrernte people. It was one of the largest cultural gatherings of indigenous and non-indigenous people since colonization. (Matt Turner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mount Borradaile in the Northern Territory was inhabited for up to 50,000 years by aboriginal tribes, and it's cave walls feature some of the best examples of aboriginal art. The drawings show a huge range of dates and events. The mount and the surrounding Arnhem Land draw tourists from all over who want to see real Australian history. (James Fisher / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The wetlands of the Yellow Water area of the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territories are a mecca for wildlife and flora. The flora in the park is among the richest in northern Australia with more than 2,000 plant species recorded. The park is also considered to be one of the most weed-free national parks in the world. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rex the crocodile swims in a tank at Sydney Wildlife World on March 29, 2010. Rex, a saltwater crocodile, was caught in the Northern Territory and moved to his current habitat in December last year. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Cows have the right of way on Norfolk Island, east of the Australian mainland, where motorists also take the time to wave to each driver they pass. (Lawrence Bartlett / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a combination of a shrine, museum and archive, which commemorates the sacrifice of Australians who died in war. (Geoff Lung / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A giant statue of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, the location of his final stand, about 110 miles northeast of Melbourne. Long dismissed as tourist kitsch, Australia's "Big Things" -- giant models of everything from koalas to pineapples -- are now being heritage-listed and recognized as works of folk art. (William West / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Ghan railway, which runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, offers travelers the chance to see great Australian landscapes through the country's Red Center. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Vineyards are shown in the internationally renowned Margaret River wine region in the south-west corner of Western Australia, situated between the two coastal capes of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A rock climber heads up a dolerite stack known as Totem Pole in Tasmania's Cape Hauy. (Nick Hancock / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Beach-goers soak in the sun on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The Gold Coast is a favorite tourist area that features some of the world's finest beaches and lively nightlife. (Sergio Dionisio / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. American Kelly Slater performs a cutback during an aerial expression session on day one of Surfsho at Bondi Beach on March 12, 2010, in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park off of Australia's coast offers one of the world's best places to snorkel. The reef is one of the richest, most diverse ecosystems and extends from the tip of Cape York in Queensland and goes south almost to Bundaberg. And it takes up an area larger than Victoria and Tasmania combined. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. These massive porites corals at the Great Barrier Reef are hundreds of years old. The corals are like trees in that each year a new band is laid down in their skeletons that record their environmental histories. (Jurgen Freund / Freund Factory) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Fish of all colors swim in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. In January of 2009, Australia announced a crackdown on pollution of the Great Barrier Reef as the World Heritage-listed site comes under increasing threat from toxic chemicals and climate change. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Crimson clouds provide a beautiful backdrop during a match between Australia and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an iconic landmark in Australia's most populous state of New South Wales, with a population in excess of 7million people, is shown in this photo taken on May 26, 2009. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Sydney Opera House is easily one of Australia's most recognizable landmarks. The buiilding, on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor, is a multi-venue performing arts center and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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