Despite a Pacific Ocean-sized case of jet lag, my wife, daughter and I were reluctant to sleep away our first morning in Sydney. So we headed for the center of the city's tourist trade: Circular Quay.
The scene -- a busy harbor promenade framed by towering office buildings -- was familiar. It could have been San Francisco's wharf, Seattle's waterfront, even Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
But as we sat among the lunchtime crowd, eating sandwiches from a nearby cafe, we noticed an unusual intruder among the seagulls that were loitering nearby, hoping for a handout. An Australian white ibis strutted among the benches, towering over the gulls and using its long, curved bill to pick up crumbs.
Suddenly, the fog of our 24-hour journey from Baltimore subsided, and Australia's charming quirkiness came clearly into focus.
For no matter how much Americans and Australians share in their language and customs -- from a back-slapping welcome to a love of head-rattling football tackles -- the differences are appealingly clear when you get Down Under.
This is a country where coins have corners, where baked beans are featured on the breakfast buffet, and a cup of coffee is a "short, white."
This is a country where the language has its own shorthand: "ta" for thank you, "arvo" for afternoon, "Chrissy prezzy" for Christmas present. And where "footy" is a rugged, helmetless sport with its own set of rules: Aussie Rules, of course.
As Bill Bryson wrote in his hilarious look at Australia, In a Sunburned Country, the nation seemed to be "a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different."
As we were considering a trip to visit our son at the University of Melbourne -- "UniMelbun" in Aussie-speak -- we doubted that Australia's major cities would be very distinctive. But that was before we encountered the ibis, the turquoise waters of Neutral Bay, Sydney's giant bats or the death masks at the Old Melbourne Gaol.
Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's two largest cities, sit in the southeastern corner of this huge, mostly undeveloped continent-country that's about the size of the continental United States. The cities are Australia's financial, cultural and sports capitals (the actual seat of federal government, Canberra, was created to defuse their rivalry) and hold more than a third of the nation's 20 million residents.
Both are vibrant, worldly and welcoming. Chic, multilevel department stores such as Myer and David Jones dominate downtown shopping, selling everything from plasma televisions to Manolo Blahnik shoes to anchovy-stuffed olives. Restaurants offer a range of ethnic food, with Sydney's distinctive Asian influence complemented by Melbourne's Greek and Italian enclaves.
Mass transit systems are efficient, clean and tourist-friendly. Getting off the train at one Sydney subway station, I asked an attendant if there was an elevator to the street level. No, he said with genuine regret, and insisted on lugging my suitcase up several flights of stairs. (That wasn't unusual; most of our requests were met with a cheery "No worries.")
For most American tourists, coastal Sydney is the first stop.
There's no better way to explore the city than riding one of the ferries that carry commuters and tourists around Sydney's harbor. The main ferry terminal is at Circular Quay, and for as little as $4.50 (Australian) -- a good use for those quirky, 12-sided half-dollar Aussie coins -- you'll get a stunning view of the Sydney Opera House and the homes that cling to the harborside hills.
Take the route to Watsons Bay or Manly. The former skirts the southeastern edge of the harbor, passing anchored sailboats and hillside mansions to stop at communities with the lyrical names of Darling Point and Rose Bay. The Manly ferry takes a longer route across the harbor, past rocky cliffs and the channel that leads to the Tasman Sea.
Almost any route will offer surprises. On a short hop to Neutral Bay, my 16-year-old daughter spotted a seal sunning itself on a small wharf. On a night ride, someone sang ditties from the ferry's bow. Even the ferry stations sound a note of exotic lands: Kirribilli, Parramatta, Cabarita.
Back at the quay -- actually a semicircular cove where Sydney was established in 1788 -- head for one of the city's landmarks. The courageous can climb the peak of Sydney Harbour Bridge, a hump-backed, steel structure that promises incredible views. The less adventurous can head to the Opera House for a guided tour.
The striking building, whose multilayered roof seems to unfold like a flower's petals, was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in 1956. Meant to put Sydney on the map, it has become an icon for the entire nation.