Sunday, February 19, 2012

News From Oz

My trip to Australia this week and last was my fifth or sixth time Down Under. I've always had a good time but none better than this.

Surroundings had something to do with it. I stayed in posh resorts in gorgeous locales - all members of Luxury Lodges of Australia ( most of the time. When I wasn't doing that, I was in a chic city hotel: Blue Sydney, a Taj Hotels, Palaces and Resorts property right on the water ( Everywhere I went, the hospitality was sterling, the food was toothsome, the wine was great. What's not to like?

I'll have detailed accounts and reviews on this blog in the weeks ahead, as well as links to my published articles on paper and on the Web. In the meantime, just a few observations about travel in Oz:

Australia is still very friendly and safe for international visitors, yet there are fewer of us right now than in recent years. There are several reasons for this, led by the lousy economies in Europe and the United States, which are causing people to stay home.

Another problem is the strong Australian dollar (AUD), which trades at $1.08 USD - way up from 64 U.S. cents just a few years ago. China is buying all the coal the Aussies can dig from under their mineral-rich land, and the booming mining export sector has driven up the value of the Aussie dollar. The takeaway for travelers: This once-affordable continental country is now pricey.

The inbound arrivals numbers tell the story. U.S. visitors were down 4 percent in 2011 from 2010, British travelers declined 11 percent, Japanese tourists dropped 16 percent and arrivals from the continental countries of the European Union plummeted by a jaw-dropping 40-plus percent. This, as reported in the national newspaper The Australian.

The weather isn't helping. This year's Southern Hemisphere summer has been a bust in some of the most tourist-friendly parts of the country. Friends and associates in Sydney - the main gateway from North America - told me it's been humid and rainy all summer. "Bucketing,'' as they say of heavy rain in Oz. Indeed, the city was muggy, foggy and showery when I arrived - though it was comfortably warm, dry and sunny the day I departed. That allowed Sydneysiders to go back to being their outdoor-loving selves, if only briefly.

Up the east coast, Queensland is still recovering from last year's typhoon and disastrous floods. The inevitable government inquest is looking into the failure of a dam and I got the feeling someone is bound to lose his job over that.

So far, so dismal. But Australia is never down for long. It remains an amazing destination, with its unique flora and fauna, dramatic landscapes, dynamic cities and the aforementioned friendlies, food and drink.

I'll be highlighting the pleasures of the places I visited: Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa (, a luxury retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney owned and managed by Emirates Airline; The Louise, a charming countryside compound surrounded by vineyards in the wine-producing Barossa Valley ( northeast of Adelaide; The Saffire, a drop-dead gorgeous waterside getaway on the East Coast of Tasmania (; and the Blue Hotel Sydney.

Much more to come on all this, mate.

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