Kelley Strout had a dream of meeting her longtime hero, Oprah Winfrey. Her husband, James, was pining to vacation in Australia. The Bangor area natives satisfied both their ambitions, and more, when they were selected to take part in Oprah’s “Ultimate Australian Adventure,” a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel in style through the land Down Under as guests of the popular talk show celebrity.
After 25 years on television, Oprah announced last fall that her wildly successfully show would air its final episode in September 2011.
Strout, 27, grew up watching “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and credits the celebrity with instilling in her a lasting appreciation of living well, responsibly and with compassion.
“She does a lot of shows about real people with real problems,” Strout said in an interview on Sunday. “She takes you into people’s lives and shows you things you would never know otherwise. She talks about the importance of ‘living your best life’ — in your relationships, what you eat, how you exercise and how you manage your finances. She encourages people to follow their passions in their careers.”
It is partly Oprah’s influence that inspired Strout to pursue a high-level career in nursing, the Orrington native said. So she was sad to learn that her hero intended to wrap up her long-running show next year, but she continued to hope for an opportunity to meet her.
After filling out an online questionnaire to determine whether she was an “ultimate viewer,” Strout was invited to be an audience guest at the show’s Chicago studio on Sept. 9. She and James had just relocated to Boston and started graduate courses at Northeastern University, but she wasn’t about to pass up the chance to sit in the Oprah audience.
As it turns out, the opportunity she seized was much, much greater. Each of the 150 people in the audience that day had been selected as an “ultimate viewer,” with a big surprise awaiting them all.
“At the end of the show, [Oprah] said she was taking everyone to Australia,” Kelly recalled in an interview on Sunday. Each person was allowed to bring one guest, and Strout chose her husband, James, who also is pursuing graduate studies at Northeastern and who also is an Oprah admirer. Although managing the logistics would be tricky, the couple knew they would never have another chance like this one.
Their adventure started on Dec. 4, when the Strouts flew from Boston to Los Angeles. The next morning they joined 300 other “Ultimate Australian Adventure” guests on the 15-hour flight to Sydney, landing the morning of Monday, Dec. 6. After checking into their hotel, the group toured the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Toranga Zoo. That evening at dinner, the guests were divided into smaller groups, each assigned to a planned but unannounced excursion.
The Strouts’ group of 12 flew out the next morning to Kangaroo Island in South Australia, where they stayed at the luxurious Southern Ocean Lodge.
“It is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen. I cried, that’s how beautiful it was,” Kelley Strout said. Their group stayed two nights, enjoying cliff-top walks above the shore, swimming in the ocean, and observing kangaroos and sea lions in their natural habitats. The guests also were treated to massage and other spa services and sumptuous dining at the lodge. After leaving Kangaroo Island, the group traveled to the Barossa Valley and stayed at another luxury hotel based at an acclaimed vineyard, where they were wined and dined with local seafood and other specialties.
Back in Sydney, they reconnected with the rest of the guests, who had enjoyed other excursions — Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, Tasmania. They compared excited notes during “a big, red-carpet VIP party” at the city’s botanical gardens. The VIP, of course, was Oprah herself, in whose honor the entire city was treated to a display of fireworks. A bright red “O” was lighted that night on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and stayed illuminated throughout Oprah’s stay. Two episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” were taped at the Sydney Opera House that week, playing to packed audiences.
Oprah’s guests joined an audience of 70,000 at a concert at Olympic Stadium featuring the rock group U2. They trekked up the dizzying arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They tried surfing at world-renowned Bondi Beach and were treated to demonstrations of aboriginal dance, song and art. The news media adored them everywhere they went.
“It was overwhelming how prepared the entire country was to welcome us,” Kelley Strout said. “The Australians may love Oprah even more than the Americans do.”
Then it was time for the guests to return to the U.S. Before they flew out of Sydney, Winfrey visited with them at the airport, and Kelley Strout finally had a chance to meet and hug her hero.
Kelley and James flew back to Boston last Wednesday — back to a clammy New England late autumn, darkness in the midafternoon and their final exams.
“I still don’t want to admit it’s over,” James Strout said.
It’s not entirely over, though — not yet. In January, the Ultimate Australian Adventure will be the subject of two episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and the two shows taped in Sydney will air during that month as well. You can bet James and Kelley Strout will be tuned in, probably connected by the online videoconfer-encing program Skype to the friends they made during their dream vacation.
“Oprah told us that this trip is evidence that great things can happen in your life,” Kelley Strout said Sunday. “But I don’t think we’ll ever do anything as big as going on vacation with Oprah Winfrey on the other side of the world.”