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Beauty, adventure half a world away

Special to The Times

WHENEVER a colleague of mine mentions his recent trips to the South Pacific or South Africa at a gathering, there’s an excited reaction. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” people say. The countries they’re referring to, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, are English-speaking, noted for their beauty and far enough away to make most travelers feel they’re out of reach.

They’re not. Although airfare to each will be the biggest expense, costs on the ground in all three places are unusually low. Here are some typical questions:

* Which country is the safest?

New Zealand, without question. If someone so much as steals a bike there, you’ll hear it on the news. Australia is a close second. These are two countries where people still leave their doors unlocked at night.

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* What is the average cost of flights to Sydney, Australia?

Most people pay too much. Earlier this year, Air New Zealand had a sale that offered round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Auckland or Sydney for $850 -- good deal. Most often, though, people pony up more cash than that because they don’t wait for sales, and they end up paying $1,700 or more.

A better option is to buy a package. Many tour companies buy airfare in bulk, which enables them to sell a total air-and-land combination for $1,200 to $1,400. If you wish, you can take the flights and make no use of the hotel vouchers -- you’ll still come out ahead. Some packagers to try: ATS Tours, (800) 423-2880, www.atstours.com; Newmans South Pacific Vacations, (888) 592-6224, www.newmans vacations.com; Qantas Holidays, (800) 562-5223, qantas.australia.com; Discover Wholesale Travel, (866) 215-4625, www.discoverwholesaletravel.com.

Once you arrive, the weaker Aussie and New Zealand dollars mean your money will go further in daily expenses.

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* What is the best time of year to visit?

Any time is fine, with an edge toward spring (October, November) and fall (March, April), because that’s when you’ll find the best balance of shoulder-season pricing and open attractions. Winter (July, August) is not frigid in any of these places (except mountainous regions), but hiking trails will be closed in New Zealand. Then again, July through August is the main time to visit Darwin and Kakadu in northern Australia. So it all depends on what you want to do.

* Why go to South Africa?

South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. There are entrenched social problems, but that’s part of the learning experience. South Africa is also one of the few places in Africa where English-speaking Westerners can visit comfortably and easily. And it’s inexpensive. A trip to Africa opens the mind in a way that a trip to Orlando never will, and because it’s so cheap, in the final tally it costs about the same.

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Cape Town ranks with Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Most tourists visit Table Mountain, the flat-topped mountain that towers directly above the skyscrapers; Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his years as a political prisoner; the many lovely wine lands of the Western Cape, including Franshoek, Stellenbosch and Tulbagh; the Cape of Good Hope, the famous peninsula at the southwestern tip of the continent; and Hermanus, on Walker Bay, where whales congregate right off the wharves. We could go on, but we’ll end with this: Beers cost 50 cents, and fine meals are often less than $8.


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