Even if Priscilla, Muriel Heslop, and Hugh Jackman never existed, the magnetic pull of Australia would still tug at the hearts of travelers. But for most Americans, the voyage just seemed too far; another solar system away. Qantas Airlines? new flying cruise, making its way direct from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Melbourne and Sydney, has made the journey to Down Under so enjoyable that flying halfway around the world really is half the fun.
I was lucky enough to snag a spot on the inaugural LAX to Melbourne flight. The two-level Airbus A380 -- the largest passenger plane in existence -- is as quiet as a mouse and smooth as butter. Flyers were greeted with a smiling staff happy to provide every complimentary convenience, and on top of that, a self-serve bar featured cocktails, champagne, and soda. The extra-luxurious business class seats are actually called Skybeds, and they extended fully flat to make sleeping a breeze, especially with privacy screens available between you and your neighbor. If leg circulation needs a boost, a walk to the passenger lounge alleviates any discomfort. The Airbus restrooms are at least double the size of typical plane facilities, meaning you have room to change into your Peter Morrissey-designed pajamas, and don your free slippers, eye mask, and lotions. Designed by handsome, young Aussie Marc Newson, the plane?s aesthetic is contemporary and high-end with actual wood paneling on part of the interior; imagine a downtown Manhattan lounge with wings.
Airborne insomniacs will not be bored crossing the Pacific. Every seat from economy to first class (there?s also premium economy seats, along with business) has television screens broadcasting a plethora of films, programs, and games, and the upper class monitors feature touch screens. The well-portioned meals were delicious, arrived fast and furious, and there?s enough wine to stock a vineyard.
After a filling meal and some Chardonnay, a good night?s sleep and a movie, you?re about ready to touch down on the glittering southeast coast of Australia.
An oversimplified, but not entirely inaccurate, comparison to Melbourne is San Francisco (fun fact: both cities greatly benefited from gold rushes in the 19th century). Sophisticated, smart, clean, gay-friendly, and easy to get around, Melbourne is less brash and glamorous than its big sister, Sydney. A great way to get an early handle on Melbourne is with a hot air balloon ride over the city. Global Ballooning (globalballooning.com.au) is one of the best operators, and it?s carbon neutral, billing itself as ?Victoria?s only sustainable ballooning company.?
For people watching, the city?s Federation Square district can?t be beat. A huge public space comprised of restaurants, shops, museums, galleries, and performance spaces, the Square -- built over two busy train lines and opened to the public in 2002 -- is where Melbourners come to hang out, and see and be seen.
Another recent city landmark is the 91-story Eureka Tower, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. The view from the observation deck on the 88th floor is nothing short of amazing.
All this urban adventure calls for a return to nature. The place for this is on nearby Philip Island -- accessible by bus, bike, or ferry -- where at the ?Penguin Parade? you can have the singular experience of viewing waddling families of birds coming ashore at dusk (visitphillipisland.com).
One of the best places to hang your head after a long Melbourne day is the ultramodern Crown Promenade Hotel in the city?s Southbank district. Centrally located and packed with amenities that include an airbridge connection to nearby shops and restaurants, the hotel?s main attribute may be its gorgeous views of the Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay.
Part One | Part Two