I'm sitting at an outdoor restaurant along the harbor in Hobart, Tasmania. Working fishing boats pass in front of me. To my rear lies a wonderful town, and mountains stretch off to our left. It all feels like the Norwegian fjords, except that everyone speaks some bizarre form of English, and everyone seems eager to share their discovery of the good life.
The folks traveling with us have done something I've never before observed as an escort anywhere in the world. They have, with some serious intent, engaged in discussions about actually retiring in Australia. At one time that would have been fairly easy, but nowadays, one needs to be self-sufficient in a Goldman-Sachs-retired-department-head sort of way. We're not at all sure the Aussies will have us, and anyway, we've yet to meet the Kiwis.
So what is it about a short time in Australia that makes an American want to move there?
After only nine days of running about small portions of this vast warehouse of a country, I don't have it all figured out. But I do know it has something to do with the fact that the Aussies just don't devote a lot of energy to trivial kinds of pursuits. Every Aussie we've encountered seems to be unaffected by attitude. They just seem to have somehow figured out what is important in life and what isn't.
I was in the country just a few days when I started to hear what, for me, became the operative phrase of the country, the one unifying force in this vast, special land: "No worries." (Or the more brotherly version, "No worries, mate.")
You hear it everywhere, from the hotel doorman when you ask directions, to the bookseller whom you thank profusely for the time she spent climbing a ladder to get you a book from the top shelf.
Go to a restaurant and ask for the fish sauce on the side while substituting veggies for rice. It is always, "No worry."
If North Korea made a mistake of geography and actually launched a missile or two at Canberra, I would imagine the first thing the minister of defense might say would be "No worries," before knocking them to kingdom come.
The more time I spend in this place, the more I realize why the No Worry Nation is so appealing to outsiders. These folks just don't sweat the small stuff. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a huge country populated with no-worriers. You rarely run into folks with any pretensions to trendiness. Aussies aren't searching for their identity, and if you won't accept them as they are ... well, then, stuff it.
I was so taken by the "no worries" phrase that I tried researching its derivation. At a coffee shop I found a white-haired gentleman, a retired government official, who smiled broadly when I asked him about it.
He explained that when Australia was primarily a British penal colony, convicts were allowed to earn time off and a clean slate, despite the harsh conditions. On the day that the convict was finally freed from the prison, he was given a piece of paper that meant he was free of all debt to society. At that moment, he was said to have "no worries," and some wardens actually wrote it on a slip of official paper.
My fish platter arrives, heaps of fresh catch in a large paper cone, along with a bottle of Cascade Blonde lager. Rule No. 1 when traveling Down Under, I quickly learned, is never order any wine or a beer you've ever heard of. Foster's is considered by many to be strictly for export. Always go for the local favorites.
I am surrounded by Aussies, but only two are locals. The rest are vacationing in Tasmania, a land known to be even more laid back than the big island.
Once you leave Sydney, you invariably get into discussions with Aussies about which part of Australia you prefer. But usually, what that really means is: How do you compare Melbourne and Sydney? You don't hear Melbourne discussed much in Sydney, but Melbourners seem obsessed with their second-city status.
I could easily turn this into a 10-part series, so let me get to the point. If you travel by cruise ship, as I am, you are not going to see all of Australia. But you are going to see its major urban centers. You are going to get a feel for Aussie city life and then, later, in New Zealand, you are going to see smaller towns and magnificent countryside.
I preferred Melbourne to Sydney. I base this on what I perceive as livability: a more laid-back lifestyle, better-developed ethnic neighborhoods and a more entrenched and open cultural scene.
I saw Melbourne, as much of it as I could -- the city, the suburbs, the parks -- from a horse-drawn carriage, a car and on foot.
The center of the city is filled with impressive Victorian buildings that grew up out of the Gold Rush. The city is orderly and amazingly clean, and the streetcars seem to glide effortlessly.
There are the ethnic neighborhoods. Lygon Street has wonderful espresso bars befitting Little Italy. Brunswick is the Middle Eastern portion of the city, and Richmond is Little Vietnam. There is a thriving Chinatown. What makes this all so special is the setting, a coastal plain at the top of horseshoe-shaped Port Phillip Bay.
When I left downtown San Francisco forever, I never thought I would ever again see a city so beautifully framed by the sea. Melbourne is that and more.
Sydney has the sites, but Melbourne has the sensibility. It is just about the coolest city on Earth.
But now we are in Hobart, nestled between brooding Mount Wellington and the tranquil banks of the Derwent River. Earlier in the day, we explored this waterside town on foot. We came upon a planned village in town, a wrap-around series of new four-story condominiums surrounding an open space with stores on the first floor.
We were struck by what we saw here. A parklike setting with residents of all ages sharing stories, stopping to chat, passing a few minutes between stops for coffee or shopping. A few little details struck me about this scene.
There was a giant chessboard in one corner, where local kids were having a spirited game. But the fitness of the population indicated that chess was just a sideline. Instead of a department or grocery store, the anchor tenant was a two-story outdoor shop selling everything from kayaking to mountain-climbing gear. It was packed.
That seemed to me to represent an accurate portrayal of the value scale of local residents as well as the country. Sports activities and exploration of the "Land of No Worries" is the way most Aussies seem to roll.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].