LANE COVE, Australia — Irene Nugent didn't actually say "G'day" as Australia's TV ads promise. She said, "Come in, have a drink and then I'll show you your room.
"Now, what would you like? The liquor is over there. I'm drinking sherry but fix whatever you want. You may as well get used to making yourself at home."
Mrs. Nugent--or Irene, as she insisted I call her--is one of several hundred Australians who have turned their homes and apartments into bed and breakfasts. She lives in Lane Cove, a wooded residential suburb of Sydney only 15 minutes from the Opera House.
But the B&B system Down Under extends beyond the major cities to include seaside villages, outback towns and even ranch houses on cattle and sheep stations. Among them are places with old-fashioned charm, but many are of recent vintage.
Irene lives in an attractively furnished three-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of a modern condominium complex. She rents out her spare room, which has a private bath and double bed, giving guests a key to the apartment so they can come and go as they please.
Turned On the Blanket
What distinguishes a great from a merely good bed and breakfast is always the host or hostess rather than the room, anyway. I came in late that night to find that Irene had turned on the electric blanket so I'd have a warm bed to crawl into (in Sydney they think 55 degrees is cold), and the next morning I awoke to the smell of coffee.
Taking it out on her balcony I got my first look at Lane Cove, a fiord-like arm of Sydney Harbor. A cottony mist hung just above the water. On the opposite shore stretched a dense preserve of eucalyptus forest and beyond that the high-rises of Sydney.
The popularity of B&Bs here as an alternative to hotels is easy to understand. Partly it's their reasonable prices, as little as $17 per person a night. But more than that, B&Bs satisfy a craving to meet the Australians, a big part of the reason for vacationing Down Under to begin with.
While an American accent and a foolish question are all you need to strike up a conversation here--especially in the pubs--by staying in a B&B you not only have someone to talk to but also often someone to show you around.
So the next morning after a breakfast of cereal with fruit, eggs, crumpets, orange juice and coffee, Irene drove me through Sydney's northern suburbs.
If I saw some things I'd have missed as an unescorted tourist--such as her social club and its poker-hand slot machines, or "pokies"--mostly it was a chance to talk; about her late husband, who invented and patented a special diesel-engine switch that Irene still manufactures in her garage; about sports; about travel; about the people who've been her guests.
Fell Asleep in His Soup
All of them have been wonderful, she insists, although there was one funny little man who hardly said anything and fell asleep in his soup.
To find out more about Australia's B&Bs and the people who run them I turned to Adrian Webster, who heads Bed and Breakfast International (Australia), the largest B&B agency Down Under.
Most people who become curious about running a B&B have, like Irene Nugent, lived or traveled internationally, he told me. But the host's personality--as important as it is--is not enough to make up for an ill-kept home in a questionable neighborhood remote from public transportation. He, his wife, Claire, or someone on his staff inspects every site and interviews every host before agreeing to represent them.
He knows everyone on the list, so he tries to do more than just find you a room--he tries to find a host with similar interests. So a couple who run a winery in California's Napa Valley were put up in homes in the Barossa Valley and Hunter Valley, the two major wine-producing regions of Australia.
And a schoolgirl who came from a large family stayed on a cattle station whose owners had six children. Given a few months notice and a brief description of who you are, he can usually satisfy special requests.
Another way to meet people without staying at a B&B is to eat at one. Bed & Breakfast International also offers what it calls a "home-stay dinner," which is just what it seems: a meal cooked and served in somebody's home. These have long been a popular element in package tours, but you can also book them individually, either before you leave the United States or after you arrive in Australia (realistically, Webster needs a week's notice to make arrangements).
Quality of Accommodations
Rates for B&Bs run $17-$23 per person, double occupancy, depending on the quality of accommodations. Ranch stays are a little higher, $40-$50. Homestay meals are $8-$11 per person. (Prices may vary slightly depending on the current value of the Australian dollar.)
Bed & Breakfast International, which has roughly 200 listings all across Australia, is at 18-20 Oxford St., P.O. Box 442, Woollahra, Sydney 2025, Australia.
Our summer--their winter--is the most economical time to visit Australia.
For more information about planning an Australian vacation contact the Australian Tourist Commission, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1740, Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 380-6060. Ask for Bed & Breakfast International's booklet of listings for home and ranch stays and the ATC's "Farm Holidays" brochure.