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Bali really is as alluring as everyone says. This island has it all: beaches, volcanoes, terraced rice fields, forests, renowned resorts, surfing, golf, and world-class dive sites. But what sets Bali apart from other nearby tropical destinations is Balinese tradition, and villagers dedicated to celebrating it. The hundreds of temples, dances, rituals, and crafts linked to their ancient Hindu faith aren't a show for tourists, but a living, breathing culture in which visitors are warmly received by the Balinese, who cherish their own identities.
On the approach to Pulau Komodo, a tiny island just 36 km (22 miles) long and 16 km (9 miles) across at its widest point, it's hard to imagine that this is the home of the fearsome dragons described by late-19th-century explorers. The island, in the Indonesian region of Nusa Tenggara, lies between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores at the heart of the Komodo National Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New7Wonders of Nature. At first look, steep hillsides of parched, golden grasses slide down into topaz bays covered in glass-clear waters, and white-sand beaches hem quiet shorelines. But then you remember that this innocent-looking island is inhabited by 13-foot-long, 220-pound ora, as Komodo dragons are known locally. Don't be frightened: Although stories of people disappearing run rampant, a trip here is quite safe—as long as you stay with a park guide.
While Komodo dragons are the main attraction, several other large species also reside here. Dark-brown deer and small buffalo nibble the grasses of the high plains, macaques peer through the trees, and wild pigs crash through the underbrush. More than 150 types of birds also inhabit the island, including cockatoos, imperial pigeons, sea eagles, and mound-building megapodes. Offshore in the marine reserve, you might spot dolphins, dugong (a relative of the manatee), sea turtles, manta rays, and even whales, as well as more than 1,000 species of fish.
Lodging on Pulau Komodo was nonexistent until 2012, when a modest, eco-friendly resort and diving club opened, providing a rare opportunity for scuba divers and snorkelers to explore this pristine habitat's extensive coral reefs and extraordinary marine life. Travelers can also find comfortable lodging and a convenient base from which to explore the many natural wonders of the Komodo National Park in Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores (East Nusa Tenggara).
Tourism is the lifeblood of Cairns (pronounced Caans). The city makes a good base for exploring the wild top half of Queensland, and tens of thousands of international travelers use it as a jumping-off point for activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling trips to the Barrier Reef, as well as boating, fishing, parasailing, scenic flights, and rain-forest treks.
It's a tough environment, with intense heat and fierce wildlife. Along with wallabies and grey kangaroos in the savannah and tree kangaroos in the rain forest, you'll find stealthy saltwater crocodiles, venomous snakes, and jellyfish so deadly they put the region’s stunning beaches off- limits to swimmers for nearly half the year. Yet despite this formidable setting, Cairns and tropical North Queensland are far from intimidating places. The people are warm and friendly, the sights spectacular, and—at the right time of year—the beachside lounging is world-class.
This coastal city has little in the way of sandy beaches or surf, but it does have shady parks, charming colonial buildings, and a boardwalk-flanked waterfront Esplanade with a terrific man-made beach and picnic facilities. The historic town center has thrived recently, with an influx of lively eateries and bars. There are also some excellent museum and a world-class aquarium.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service has an office on Magnetic Island, but Townsville Enterprise's information kiosks in Flinders Square and the Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ), on the mainland, are the best sources of visitor info about the island.
Founded in 1824 on the banks of the wide, meandering Brisbane River, the former penal colony of Brisbane was for many years regarded as just a big country town. Many beautiful timber Queenslander homes, built in the 1800s, still dot the riverbanks and inner suburbs, and in spring the city's numerous parks erupt in a riot of colorful jacaranda, poinciana, and bougainvillea blossoms. Today the Queensland capital is one of Australia's most up-and-coming cities: glittering high-rises mark its polished business center, slick fashion boutiques and restaurants abound, and numerous outdoor attractions beckon. In summer, temperatures here are broilingly hot and days are often humid, a reminder that this city is part of a subtropical region. Wear SPF 30-plus sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat outdoors, even on overcast days.
Brisbane's inner suburbs, a 5- to 10-minute drive or 15- to 20-minute walk from the city center, have a mix of intriguing eateries and quiet accommodations. Fortitude Valley combines Chinatown with a cosmopolitan mix of clubs, cafés, and boutiques. Spring Hill has several high-quality hotels, and Paddington, New Farm, Petrie Terrace, West End, and Woolloongabba are full of an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars. Brisbane is also a convenient base for trips to the Sunshine and Gold coasts, the mountainous hinterlands, and the Moreton Bay islands.
Sydney belongs to the exclusive club of cities that generate excitement. At the end of a marathon flight there's renewed vitality in the cabin as the plane circles the city, where thousands of yachts are suspended on the dark water and the sails of the Opera House glisten in the distance. Blessed with dazzling beaches and a sunny climate, Sydney is among the most beautiful cities on the planet.
With 4.6 million people, Sydney is the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Australia. A wave of immigration from the 1950s has seen the Anglo-Irish immigrants who made up the city's original population joined by Italians, Greeks, Turks, Lebanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thais, and Indonesians. This intermingling has created a cultural vibrancy and energy—and a culinary repertoire—that was missing only a generation ago.
Sydneysiders embrace their harbor with a passion. Indented with numerous bays and beaches, Sydney Harbour is the presiding icon for the city, and urban Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the 11-ship First Fleet, wrote in his diary when he first set eyes on the harbor on January 26, 1788: "We had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbor in the world."
Although a visit to Sydney is an essential part of an Australian experience, the city is no more representative of Australia than Los Angeles is of the United States. Sydney has joined the ranks of the great cities whose characters are essentially international. What Sydney offers is style, sophistication, and great looks—an exhilarating prelude to the continent at its back door.
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