An unexpected opportunity came up to visit Australia for work back in November and I jumped at the chance. The trip involved a week in the Whitsundays for a team 'offsite' (best offsite ever!) plus 2 weeks in Sydney. It takes a lot of effort to get to Australia from Ireland (it can take over 24 hours to get there) so we decided to tack on a bit of vacation fun while we were there and cross Tasmania, and Western Australia off our bucket list. This is bleisure travel at it's best! Immersing ourselves Down Under for a few weeks, we were surprised and and generally delighted frequently. Here are 12 things that surprised us when we visited Australia. Hat tip to Scott from VacationCounts for the inspiration for many items on this list!
1. You Can Bring Liquids on Domestic Flights
Our trip involved a number of domestic flights from Sydney to Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, Hobart in Tasmania, and Perth in Western Australia. Imagine our surprise when we realized we didn't have to jettison our liquids and squeeze everything into tiny three ounce (100 mL) containers and then jam those into a one quart plastic bag. You can bring liquids on domestic flights. This really helped us out as I was able to pack extra water for the oh-so-hot Whitsundays plus in Tassie, we were able to bring home more wine and craft beer. Fill those water bottles and grab a bottle of Australian wine without fear of it being confiscated.
2. There is No Air Conditioning in Most Sydney Cafes and It Gets Crazy HOT
The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere so summer was just rolling in full force when we visited in November. On some days it got as high as 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). We were really surprised that most cafes didn't have air conditioning or it was so weak that they had to open the doors anyway to try and keep people from roasting inside. Be prepared for insane temperatures both inside and out.
3. Australia is an Expensive Country to Visit Even with Depressed Currency
The US dollar is currently riding high with 42% more buying power at the end of 2015 than it had in 2012. Despite this, Australia is still a very expensive country with things costing about 30% more than we'd expect in Ireland or the U.S. even taking into account the favorable currency. A pint of beer can cost well over 10 AUD depending on the alcohol content.
4. Chinese Culture (not British) is Thriving in Central Sydney
Chinese culture (not to mention the cultures of several other Southeast Asian countries) is thriving in Sydney. A quick walk into Chinatown reveals a buzzing scene with the smell of amazing food wafting out from a variety of restaurants. We sampled Chinese dumplings, Malaysian curries, fragrant Vietnamese platters and more on our trip. We were simply spoiled for choice. Despite the fact that Australia is still considered a 'realm' of the British Commonwealth (i.e., they recognize Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign), British culture very much plays second fiddle here (aside from the odd English pub).
5. Wine Grows Everywhere, Even Tasmania (Though They Don't Export)
Australia is famous for its wines (especially Shiraz) which are widely drunk around the world. Barossa Valley and McClaren Vale are just two of the more popular wine regions that many will recognize. Australia also features a number of lesser known boutique wine growing regions including Tasmania. We spent a day exploring the Coal River wine region and tasting fine Pinor Noir and other varietals. We also made sure to enjoy local wines with dinner each night. Tasmanian wines were fantastic but they aren't widely exported so find an excuse to visit and sample them at their source.
6. Even a Platypus can be Dangerous
I made the questionable choice of watching 'The 72 Most Dangerous Animals in Australia', a TV series with a couple episodes made available on Virgin Australia flights. There is a common joke that everything is trying to kill you in Australia and to watch these videos, you'd definitely think it's true. From the dreaded Sydney funnel-web spider, the great white shark, freshwater crocodiles, and the deadly box jellyfish. Even the cute little platypus can be dangerous. The males have a spur on their back foot and when startled can inject a couple milliliters (about 10x what other animals inject) of painful venom. We were lucky enough to see a platypus in the wild in Tasmania but were thankful that it was from a safe distance!
7. You Need to Visit Tasmania to See An Authentic Colonial Prison
The stereotype of early Australia is that it was simply crawling with prisons and was one giant penal colony with boatloads of 'convicts' transported from England for a range of offenses. To see a true slice of Australia's early history, a trip to Tasmania is in order. Early prisons were placed in remote locations (making escape difficult). Port Arthur at the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula features a stunningly beautiful backdrop. Walking around the grounds we could see the stark difference between the Port Arthur experienced by the prisoners (cold, dank environs with much time spent in solitude) and the Port Arthur experienced by the guards, their families, and other free colonists (bright parks and gardens with cozy homes).
8. You Can Actually Feed a Tasmanian Devil (and They Aren't All Named Taz)
We visited Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary just a short drive out of Hobart. Here we met a Tasmanian Devil named Betty. Surprise! They aren't all called Taz and they don't spin around and spit. We donned gloves and picked up a wallaby leg and of so carefully fed it to the devils. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Just watch those fingers! Tasmanian devils can bite through bone.
9. Tastings are Free in the Premium Wine Region You've Probably Never Heard Of - Margaret River, WA
We've tasted wines all around the world and usually the fancier the region, the more expensive the tastings are. For example, in Napa, Chateau Montelena was featured in the movie 'Bottle Shock' and charged about 20 bucks for a tasting (no thank you...). Margaret River in Western Australia is a relatively small wine producing region but makes a disproportionately large amount of 'premium' wine. Despite the luxury label, all of the tastings in and around Margaret River were free or a small fee that was refunded upon purchasing a bottle. Definitely my kind of place!
10. Beer Sizes Vary from State to State
In Ireland, we're used to rocking up to the bar and ordering a pint. That really is the only option (unless you're a dainty lady in which case ordering a glass of beer is also ok). In Sydney, there were schooners, middys, pints, pots, and jugs to deal with. Not only that, but the sizes of each class of beer varied by state. A schooner in South Australia does not equal a schooner in Sydney. We found this both fascinating and confusing. Make a mental note of where you are before ordering!
11. Even the Pigeons are Exotic
We were walking through a small park in Watson's Bay near Sydney when I came upon some really cool birds with a jaunty whoosh of feathers on top of their heads. I immediately went into birder paparazzi mode and started snapping. "These must be the coolest, most exotic birds I've ever seen!" I thought to myself. They looked a bit like lapwings which are kind of rare in the UK and Ireland. When I went home and checked my field guide, it turns out they were crested pigeons! Even the pigeons are exotic Down Under!
12. Fraggle Rock is an Actual Place!
'Fraggle Rock' was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid. I was simply delighted when we went to watch the sunset in the Margaret River region of Western Australia and discovered that Fraggle Rock is a real place. Cue theme song!
Have you visited Australia? What things surprised you most about your visit? Add a comment below to share your experience!
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