MELBOURNE/SYDNEY - As I walked along the streets of Melbourne beside the Yarra River, I realised that I was one of the few people wearing a face mask.
In an attempt to assimilate, I decided to take off my mask, given that Melbourne does not mandate mask-wearing outdoors.
For a minute, it felt so wrong.
It was the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic worsened in March last year that I was taking a leisurely maskless walk in the open.
Even though I was 6,000km away from home, the Singaporean in me was instinctively worried that someone would snap a picture of me flouting Covid-19 rules.
But soon, with the breeze from the river on my face, the feeling was liberating.
It was also a reminder of what our life was like before the global pandemic.
The rediscovery of simple joys was a recurrent theme throughout my six-day trip in Australia.
This was heightened by the pleasure of new experiences in a foreign country, which travel lovers have missed for so long.
I was invited to travel on the first quarantine-free flight for Singaporeans into Melbourne on Nov 21, under a media trip hosted by Singapore Airlines and Tourism Australia.
With Australia's partial reopening, Singapore citizens could enter Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory without having to quarantine.
But, in a stark reminder that Covid-19 is still looming large, Australia announced on Nov 27 that it will require all international travellers to serve 72 hours of isolation on arrival, in response to the emerging Omicron variant.
If you are prepared to go through the isolation period, or plan to take a long-awaited trip when border curbs ease, here are six things to see and do in Melbourne and Sydney.
1. Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Melbourne is the second city in the world to stage Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which has won 10 Tony awards since opening on Broadway in 2019.
The show is adapted from the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical film starring Ewan McGregor as a poor English poet who falls for a cabaret actress played by Nicole Kidman.
The musical premiered on Nov 12 at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, after a pandemic- induced delay.
The show embeds covers of hits by stars such as Lady Gaga, Adele and Beyonce.
It was incredibly refreshing for me to soak in the energy of the cheering audience of 1,000 people and to admire the glitzy sets.
For 2½ hours, the dazzling performance was an escape from a life dominated by Covid-19.
Ticket prices start from A$95 ($92).
2. The Lume
The first permanent digital gallery in Australia, The Lume transforms art masterpieces into immersive sensory encounters.
It opened its doors at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Nov 1 - again, after delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is currently showing the works of Dutch legend Vincent van Gogh, including Starry Night Over The Rhone and Sunflowers.
The artworks are projected onto a floor area about half the size of the football field, and also onto 11m-high walls, for a 360-degree sensation of stepping inside paintings.
This visual spectacle is accompanied by music and lighting curated for each art piece.
It was a wondrous place where I could easily have spent hours, if there had been time.
Tickets start from A$39 for adults.
Info: The Lume website
3. Arthurs Seat Eagle
This is advertised as an experience of gliding quietly through the sky in a gondola or cable car.
The ride starts from the base of Arthurs Seat, about an hour from Melbourne. A return trip to its summit takes about 30 minutes in total.
The open windows of the gondola and the leisurely speed combine for a peaceful ride with scenic views of Mornington Peninsula and Port Phillip Bay.
If the weather is clear enough, you might also be able to catch a glimpse of the Melbourne city skyline.
A return ticket for an adult costs A$27.90.
4. Sydney By Sail
A three-hour cruise in Sydney Harbour in a sailboat is a fun way to savour the city from a different perspective.
As our boat motored out of the harbour, we passed the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Bridge and other sights.
Our captain, Josh, was happy to pass the boat's wheel to visitors on several occasions. We were also treated to crash courses on how the sails work and how to steer the boat.
Couples looking for a special staycation can book an overnight stay on a boat with Sydney By Sail.
The budget-conscious can still enjoy a sailboat experience by booking it with a group of friends.
Our three-hour cruise cost about $1,900 for up to 12 passengers, with food and drinks included.
Info: Sydney By Sail website
5. Peninsula Hot Springs
Taking a dip in a natural hot spring while the temperature was around 16 deg C was a pleasure for travellers like me.
There were about 20 thermal pools and the most popular was a small hilltop pool where visitors could take in the views.
If you fancy getting up close to wildlife, look out for the wandering ducks that also dip into the water.
You could also indulge in a spa or sauna treat.
Remember to pack swimwear. Otherwise, a pair of swimming trunks retails for almost A$50 there.
6. Australian flavours
With such a diverse society in Australia, you can taste the world's cuisines in the country - be it fresh seafood, modern Peruvian, French croissants or a full Aussie breakfast.
Singaporeans craving for a taste of home can find Asian restaurants with ease, especially in Sydney.
If you are willing to shell out more for a fine dining experience, there are many reputable restaurants to choose from.
If you are curious about uniquely Australian dishes, indigenous food will be a good place to start. I had a meal at the Big Esso restaurant at Federation Square in Melbourne, which serves a variety of unfamiliar dishes from kangaroo tartare to fried crocodile. The latter, to my pleasant surprise, had the texture and taste of popcorn chicken.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) and a few other airlines operate designated vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights from Australia into Singapore. Travellers who book VTL flights do not have to serve quarantine on their return into Singapore.
Round-trip tickets on SIA to Sydney and Melbourne start from about $700.
But quarantine-free travel into Australia is currently on hold, even though the New South Wales and Victoria states initially opened up their borders to vaccinated Singaporeans on Nov 21.
Both states announced on Nov 27 that all vaccinated international travellers will have to self-isolate for at least 72 hours, following the emergence of the Omicron variant.