The strong Australian dollar makes the timing right to explore the United States, writes Katrina Lobley.
TWO years ago, the Aussie dollar bought you just two quarters and a dime. My, how times have changed.
Now the dollar's going gangbusters against the greenback, there's never been a more affordable time for Australian travellers to hit the US.
And it won't break the bank to get there, either. Airfares took a tumble last year when V Australia and Delta arrived to give the other Sydney-Los Angeles carriers, Qantas and United, a run for their money.
Forget the days of 2008, when it routinely cost about $2000 to fly to Los Angeles and back. With some savvy shopping, you can nab a return ticket for under $1000, especially if you can travel in the next few weeks (airfares rise sharply in December).
And don't let the northern winter turn you off going. As we discovered, there are at least 10 very cool places to hang out Stateside.
Rocky Mountain high
Glamorous Aspen is where the rich and famous go to be seen - and this season might be your most affordable chance to join them. Ski-in, ski-out luxury mountain inn The Little Nell, with its comfy feather-stuffed sofas, attracts the likes of Jack Nicholson and Kate Hudson, while hip boutique stay The Sky Hotel has one of the hottest apres-ski scenes around.
The snow season starts on Aspen and Snowmass mountains on Thanksgiving (November 25) and on Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk from December 11, with this season stretching 22 weeks until April 24. Advice from Aspen is that booking lift tickets through Australian tour operators such as Skimax, Travelplan and Mogul Ski World, together with accommodation, is better than booking lift tickets directly.
At Vail, check out Solaris, the town's new social hub, with its indoor 10-lane bowling alley-restaurant, Bol, that serves $US30 ($30.26) Maine lobster pizzas, and the grown-up cinema CineBistro, with leather rocking chairs, cocktails and fine dining. A Vail one-day lift ticket ($US70 ) includes sister resort Beaver Creek, a gated community 15 minutes' drive away.
Live the high life in LA
Cock the pinkie while taking tea at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The hotel's $US45 Beverly Hills Tea includes everything from a cup of vanilla Earl Grey to black tea scented with chocolate and mint, a flute of champagne and nibbles such as chicken salad and apple butter on marble rye and lemon macaroons.
Or check in to the whimsical Philippe Starck-designed SLS in Beverly Hills to live life like a rock star, or at least rub shoulders with them in the hotel's seriously buzzy Bar Centro at the Bazaar while you slurp a margarita topped with salt air (they're big on liquid-nitrogen cocktails here) or a mojito strained over fairy floss.
If it's hot restaurants you're after in LA's cooler season, cosy up to your concierge and see if he or she can nab a table at Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Beverly Hills or the Ivy on Robertson Boulevard. For something more casual but equally celebrity-soaked, nip into the Newsroom Cafe across the road from the Ivy. Design features are on tap at the uber-chic Mondrian hotel in West Hollywood or, for old-fashioned glamour, book into the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard or the Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard, said to be haunted by Marilyn Monroe.
Roll the dice in Nevada
Book in to one of the swankiest hotels in Las Vegas - hell, even splash out on a suite. The opulent Bellagio, with its famous dancing fountains, is a favourite, while the $US2.7 billion Wynn boasts two Michelin-starred eateries , as well as a Ferrari-Maserati dealership ($US10 admission).
In between a flutter, catch a show such as Cirque du Soleil's watery spectacular (through next year at the Bellagio, tickets from $US93.50) or nipped-and-tucked diva Cher at Caesars Palace (through next year, tickets from $US95). Browse a show calendar (Jerry Seinfeld's coming in December, Santana in January) at vegas.com or check out hotel deals at visitlasvegas.com. Flex the plastic at The Crystals, an ultra-high-end shopping mall within the Strip's CityCenter, which drips with designer names and celebrity eateries.
Death Valley, 85 metres below sea level, is an easy 216-kilometre drive from Vegas. Summer temps are scorching, so winter is a great time to go: crowds are down and the low-angled light is brilliant for photographing its water-fluted canyons, sand dunes and snow-capped mountains. The Grand Canyon's South Rim remains open during winter but, although it's not far as the crow flies, it takes six hours to drive there from Vegas.
Conquer the Big Apple
If you've always wanted to make like Audrey Hepburn and sashay into Tiffany & Co on Fifth Avenue, do it now while our dollar's going gangbusters.
Queues can be longer than a string of Mikimoto pearls in the lead-up to Christmas but assistants are surprisingly friendly. If the budget doesn't stretch to diamonds, browse the silver collection on the third floor for a signature charm or key ring.
Fifth Avenue is also the place to find ritzy department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Saks, as well as the toy mecca FAO Schwarz. Celebs such as Hugh Jackman and Tom Cruise have helped their children customise fluffy toys at Build-a-Bear Workshop on the same street. Sports nuts can make a beeline for the NBA Store on Fifth and shoot hoops on the main-floor half-court, or swoosh in to Niketown on East 57th. When retail fatigue strikes, join locals on the ice in Central Park at Lasker Rink in the north or Wollman Rink in the south (open November to March), or take advantage of the museums and galleries, not only in NYC but also in Washington, DC, which is a one-hour flight away.
Pay homage to the King
Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, is all lit up from November 19 when the mansion's Christmas lights are switched on. Inside, check out the decorated trees and Elvis's favourite red velvet curtains - on display until January 10 to incorporate birthday celebrations (he would have turned 76 next January 8). Tickets for birthday events, which include a midnight southern breakfast, go on sale from tomorrow at elvis.com.
Take the free shuttle from Graceland and touch Elvis's first microphone on a tour of Sun Studio , then continue on to the Rock'n'Soul Museum, which tells the story of Memphis's rich musical history.
Go the whole hog with the Elvis thing and stay at Heartbreak Hotel near Graceland: four Elvis-themed suites each sleep up to eight (rooms from $US112; themed suites from $US549), or visit Tupelo, Mississippi, about 145 kilometres from Memphis, where Elvis was born.
Tour the modest two-room house, museum and Assembly of God church where Elvis sang as a boy.
Back in Memphis, soul music lovers can pore over 2000-plus exhibits at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Drive the Florida Keys
Enjoy the strange experience of island-hopping on wheels after hurricane season ends in November.
The engineering marvel known as the Overseas Highway travels 205 kilometres from the Florida mainland to the party town of Key West, which is closer to Havana, Cuba (170 kilometres away), than it is to Miami (250 kilometres).
If you like all things pirate, check out Key West's Pirates in Paradise festival (November 26-December 5); the more highbrow can wander through Ernest Hemingway's former residence (hemingwayhome.com), which is also home to 60 polydactyl (extra-toed) cats, some of which are descended from the six-toed kitty a ship's captain gave to Hemingway.
Keen divers can board a boat at Key Largo to explore the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, 10 kilometres out to sea. Or pull off the highway at Bahia Honda State Park (Mile Marker 37), which boasts one of the Keys' most scenic beaches, with a sandy shoreline set against the backdrop of an impressive surviving railway bridge. FYI to cyclists: a continuous bike trail from Key Largo to Key West is coming.
Alaskan winters can be a little short on sunshine but make the most of all that dark by venturing out to catch the psychedelic northern lights. The aurora borealis is active all year but can be seen in the Alaskan night sky only from late August to early April.
Serious aurora chasers head to Fairbanks in central Alaska (in winter, Alaska Railroad travels between Anchorage and Fairbanks only on weekends) to increase their chances of seeing the brilliant light display. The Sydney-based Alaska Bound has a four-night Aurora Arctic Circle Train Adventure taking place until April that includes catching the Aurora Winter train to Fairbanks and a flight over the Arctic Circle. It also has a four-day Ultimate Dog Mushing Experience, in which you learn to drive a team of huskies and camp under the northern lights.
Get wet in Hawaii
Surfers know winter in Hawaii means just one thing: big waves. And when we say big, we mean gobsmacking 30-footers (10 metres) and higher.
Watch the action along Oahu's north shore or head out on the water on a fishing boat ($US750 for a 10-hour charter for one to two people, sport-fishing-hawaii.com) to dangle a line for marlin or yellowfin tuna.
Keep your eyes peeled for even bigger animals: humpback whales make their way from Alaska to Hawaii's warm waters to breed and give birth from December to early May. Hawaiians treat the whales with respect and consider the calves native-born. The clear waters of Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai are best but keep watch for whales whatever island you're on.
If you're into art and surf culture, tiny Paia on Maui's north shore, with its brightly painted art galleries and antique stores, will satisfy on both counts. History buffs should note that a $US58 million museum and visitor centre at the Pearl Harbour Historic Site, a 45-minute drive from Waikiki, is set to open on December 7 - the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack.
Kicks on Route 66
Route 66, the 3945-kilometre road built in the 1920s to link Chicago and Los Angeles and affectionately known as The Main Street of America, might have been decommissioned in the mid-1980s but it still looms large in the culture.
In winter, skip the cold of the north-east to explore southern desert states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Rent something on wheels - a car, campervan or Harley-Davidson - and travel back in time on this iconic road, which takes in mum-and-dad motels, retro diners, cowboy steakhouses and the like.
At the 1950s-style Route 66 Malt Shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, try a green chile cheeseburger washed down with a black cow (a cola float with chocolate ice-cream and syrup).
Then drool over the distinctive Spanish-pueblo revival architecture of Santa Fe, New Mexico. At Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, finish the 72-ounce (two-kilogram) sirloin steak in an hour at The Big Texan Steak Ranch and it's free.
Sniff, swirl, sip, salivate
Obsess over pinot noir and other varietals of Sonoma County north of San Francisco. Napa Valley's less famous neighbour stages Winter Wonderland (wineroad.com) from January 15-16.
The weekend event gives lovers of wine - and those who love driving them - an excuse to tootle about the 120 participating wineries tucked into the picturesque valleys. Road-test the county's best drops and meet the winemakers. Some vineyards also offer food pairings and tours. Advance online tickets cost $US40 for the weekend; $US30 for Sunday and $US10 for the designated driver.
Back in San Fran, cruise around the Museum of Modern Art.
It has dragged out 400 pieces from its collection, including Jackson Pollock's 1943 canvas Guardians of the Secret and Jeff Koons's 1988 porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles, for its 75th-anniversary show that finishes on January 16.
The Sydney-based spokesman for tourism organisation Visit USA and author of the guidebook America Over Easy, Mark Sheehan, says don't be afraid to push your dollar further. He suggests asking for a room upgrade at the time of check-in; the same goes for vehicle upgrades at the car-rental counter. "Just do it with a big smile," he says. "They'll love ya, even if they can't give you a better room."
Resist the urge to overpack. Most leading US airlines charge a fee for checked bags, which can turn a cheap fare into a not-so-cheap fare. See George Hobica's blog post on airfarewatchdog.com for his helpful baggage-fee comparison chart.
Los Angeles: United Airlines and Delta fly Sydney-LA direct from $978, V Australia from $992 and Qantas from $1062.
Las Vegas: V Australia, from $1219, or bus out in the morning from LA and be in Vegas for lunch with luxbusamerica.com, $US88 ($88.77) one-way/$US120 round-trip.
New York: V Australia, from $1431.
Denver: Denver is a hub for United Airlines and is serviced by many other airlines. Return fares from LA from $US157. farecompare.com.
Memphis: Memphis is a major hub for Delta Airlines and serviced by many other carriers. Return fares from $US240. farecompare.com.
Miami: Qantas, from $1244.
Hawaii: Hawaiian Airlines flies from Sydney to Honolulu from $1107; you can fly to the mainland with a Hawaii stopover from $1782. hawaiianairlines.com.au.
Hawaii Tourism Oceania: (02) 9286 8951, hawaiitourism.com.au.