White-sand beaches, outback adventures, rainforests, koala and kangaroo hotspots, and that opera house… discover all this and a lot more with our essential guide to Australia
You want to…see the opera house and bridge
Go to: Sydney (duh). Oz’s biggest city is full of iconic sights. But with a little know-how, you can squeeze the classics into 48 hours
7am Yes, it’s early, but stick with us – this is Sydney Opera House o’clock. Rather than cooing at the auditoriums on the bog-standard tour later in the day, take the early morning VIP backstage option. It’s a warts-and-all look at how everything works, from the props and sets to the orchestra pit and surprisingly spartan star dressing rooms. Also thrown in: a cooked brekkie in the green room.
10am Strutting cockatoos rule the roost in the manicured Royal Botanic Garden, where most visitors simply box-tick with a quick stroll. Dig deeper with an Aboriginal Heritage tour, a guided 90-minute mooch around the fantastical flora, exploring millennia-old secret cures and even tasting some bush tucker. Don’t worry, no beetles.
Noon Think Australia doesn’t do history? Wait ’til you see the handsome old buildings in the waterside Rocks district. The Rocks Discovery Museum (therocks.com) covers history ancient, colonial and modern, while the 200-step slog up to Pylon Lookout gives spectacular harbour views. Or shell out big bucks on the BridgeClimb Sydney
6pm Harbour views generally mean killer menu prices. But on the Glenmore Hotel’s rooftop (theglenmore.com.au), you get superior pub grub such as Japanese-influenced tuna tataki and wagyu beef burger - plus the Opera House in plain sight.
8pm Unwind like a Sydneysider at the Lord Nelson, a 19th-century watering hole just moments from the Harbour Bridge.
8.30am Harbour cruises are ten a penny, but the best way to explore the nooks and crannies is by kayak. Join Sydney Harbour Kayaks on a four-hour paddling tour to little-known cove beaches, creeks and Garigal National Park beauty spots.
12.30pm Tummy rumbling? Luckily the tour finishes next to Afous, a waterside Spanish/Moroccan joint that even most Sydneysiders don’t know about. Fuel up on Moroccan meatballs.
1.30pm Sydney’s best hike is the 10km Spit Bridge to Manly walk. You’ll pass dainty waterfalls, breeze-blown harbour clifftops and Aboriginal rock engravings, before finishing at beachy seaside suburb Manly. The half-hour ferry ride back to Circular Quay is the bargain alternative to a harbour cruise.
7pm You’ve been inside – now’s the time to walk round the back of the Opera House for a lesser-seen look at the rooftop ‘sails’. The light’s just right as you carry on to tree-lined Mrs Macquarie’s Point jutting over the harbour to snap that perfect shot of the sun setting over the water behind the bridge and Opera House.
8.30pm This city invented pan-Asian fusion. Get your fill at China Doll, on schmoozy, well-to-do Wooloomoolloo Wharf. The wagyu beef shin Penang curry is the creamy-spicy star.
You want to…watch the sun setting over that rock
Go to: Uluru
The Uluru sunset is justly famous, painting the rock a blazing red. But cloudy skies often make for an anti-climactic finish, so stay for at least two nights. If you do see the glow on day one, spend the next evening at the sunrise viewing area. Go in September, when it’s not yet too hot to be out in the daytime and the desert is a blaze of purple wildflowers. Fill your days walking or cycling (climbing the rock is a no-no), or visit the rock domes at Kata Tjuta (your ark pass covers both sites; parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru). If you’re in the mood to splash out, stay at Longitude 131° – you can see the rock from your bed.
You want to…take in a bit of Australia’s cool side
Go to: Melbourne – Australia’s ‘second city’ isn’t just hipster central, it’s also the country’s culinary capital
9am Start in the city’s graffiti-laced laneways, home to cool cafés, tiny bars and quirky shops. Get a flavour of the best bits on a walking tour with a Localing guide. They’ll tailor it to your interests and pick up brekkie for you on the way (localing.com.au).
1pm Bar Lourinhã on Little Collins Street may not be new, but it manages to stay in vogue with its bang-on tapas and buzzy Andalucían vibes. Opt for the lunch special (barlourinha.com.au).
3pm Even the museums are ‘now’ in this city. Hit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in the modern jumble of architecture that is Federation Square, and take in interactive cinema-based exhibits or listen to free expert talks (acmi.net.au).
7pm Nostalgic ’90s tunes, pink neon lights – Chin Chin restaurant is rockin’ it before you even get to the food, a scrumptious fusion of Aussie, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines (the king salmon in coconut red curry is sublime). It doesn’t take reservations so prepare to wait – it’s worth it.
11 pm Down a sleepy street-arty laneway, trendy Bar Americano mixes vintage-style chequered floors and cutting-edge cocktails (baramericano.com).
8am Wake up with house-roasted coffee and coconut-crusted brioche with pineapple and lime curd at Industry Beans café in Fitzroy. It’s an easy walk from the eastern side of the CBD.
9.30am Melburnians love their coffee. Join a two-hour workshop at Proud Mary roasters in Collingwood to learn how to brew your cuppa to exacting Antipodean standards.
1pm Messy burgers in a graffiti-covered train carriage on a rooftop: Easey’s isn’t your regular burger joint, but it might just be the funkiest in Australia.
3pm Peruse the design boutiques that line Gertrude and Smith Streets in Fitzroy, taking in the shabby-chic, historic terraced buildings. If it’s a Saturday or Sunday, hit Rose Street’s Artists’ Market for quirky prints, handmade cards and jewellery.
7pm If you eat just one fancy dinner in Melbourne, have it at Ides. On the menu: pure, delicious innovation – think salt-and-pepper cos lettuce on ice, and Norwegian-style brown cheese with mango. The house-made butter, blended with peanuts, is insanely good – you can buy a jar of it to take home.
You want to… cuddle koalas
Go to: Brisbane
Eagle-eyed travellers might spot koalas in the wild, perched in gum trees in Victoria, eastern Queensland and New South Wales. But if you want a close-up, it’s best to visit a koala sanctuary. At the world’s largest, Lone Pine, on Brisbane’s outskirts, you can even hold one. It’s done very ethically: there are 130 koalas here, so each is only ever held rarely, and briefly, and proceeds go towards their conservation. Don’t wear your best shirt: they’ve been known to mess on visitors
You want to… hang out with kangaroos
Go to: Kangaroo Island
Australia’s iconic ’roos are plentiful in rural areas at dawn and dusk – but you’re frequently afforded only a fleeting glimpse (and often from your car). Not so on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, named for its plentiful population, and famous for other wildlife, too, including wallabies, sea lions, fur seals and goanna lizards. See them on a tour featuring joeys over a BBQ fish lunch, with island-made grape. Or stay at the swanky Southern Ocean Lodge – come sunset, you’ll be sipping bubbly and nibbling canapés in a field full of tame, grazing kangaroos.
You want to… helicopter over otherworldly scenery
The desert one: Bungle Bungles, East Kimberley, WA
There’s nowhere like the Bungle Bungles, aka Purnululu National Park, a landscape of stripey orange-and-black domes that march in groups like a beehive army across the arid desert of the Kimberley. The only way to grasp their scale is on a scenic flight. HeliSpirit has the best, taking off from inside the park, giving you more time above the domes. The 18-minute flight takes you along Piccaninny Gorge, an ash-grey riverbed sculpted by something rare in these parts – water.
The dazzling one: Hutt Lagoon, Yallabatharra, WA
No, you’re not dreaming: the lake you’re flying over really is pink. Divided from the Indian Ocean by a narrow isthmus, Hutt Lagoon is a 14km-long pool of sugary pink surrounded by a crust of sparkling white — that’s the sea salt seeping in. Geraldton Air Charter will fly you over this bizarre body of water from Geraldton, spending about eight minutes circling above it.
The romantic one: Heart Reef, near Hamilton Island, QLD
That heart-shaped coral atoll you’ve seen on greetings cards really does exist. And yes, it sees proposals on a near-daily basis, but that doesn’t make flying above it any less romantic. Fly out by helicopter to the Great Barrier Reef, where coral stretches to the horizon and Heart Reef hoves into view for the perfect photo.
The rocky one: Twelve Apostles, Shipwreck Coast, VIC
At ground level, you can only see a few of the famous golden rock stacks that fringe Victoria’s limestone coast. Get the bigger picture from the air: from above, the mainland looks like the jagged edges of a puzzle, the stacks little pieces broken away. A 15-minute flight takes you over the Apostles and the platform-like formation of London Bridge.
You want to… hit the beach
The party one: Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, QLD
This aptly named seaside resort surfs by day and dances by night. Try House of Brews for rooftop drinks.
The photogenic one: Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, QLD
Whitehaven could have been designed for Instagram: it’s impossible to take a bad photograph of its perfect 7km swirl of white silica sand and turquoise water. Walk 15 minutes up to the lookout for the best shot.
The crowd-free one: South Mandu, Ningaloo, WA
Cape Range National Park’s string of sandy beaches is the departure point for Australia’s best snorkelling, on Ningaloo Reef. South Mandu generally has the sparsest crowds.
The family-friendly one: Noosa Main Beach, near the Sunshine Coast, QLD
This sheltered north-facer has calm surf and easy access to the town’s best restaurants (Noosa is a foodie hot spot). Boardwalk Bistro serves local seafood overlooking the beach — the kids needn’t even leave the sands.
The surf-loving one: Bells Beach, southwest of Melbourne, VIC
Synonymous with surfing, Bells is all about catching waves. Come March-October for near-guaranteed surf, or visit in Easter for the Rip Curl Pro tournament to watch the experts.
The city one: Shelly Beach, Manly, NSW
Take the ferry to Manly from Sydney’s Circular Quay (manlyfastferry.com.au) but eschew the main sands for Shelly Beach. Its north-facing strand catches the day’s last rays.
The eclectic one: Rottnest Island, near Perth, WA
This tiny island has 63 beaches and 20 bays, from Fish Hook Bay, known for its distinct curved shape and abundant marine life, to Little Salmon Bay, with its snorkel safari. Hire a bike and pedal until you find your favourite.
The easy-going one: Cape Bridgewater, near Portland, VIC
White sand stretches for four kilometres bookended by cliffs; kids can take a surf lesson while mum and dad sip tea at the café… Cape Bridgewater feels like a down-to-earth, local Aussie beach. After a bucket-and-spade day, drive up to the surreal ‘petrified forest’ to see its bizarre trunk-like rock formations.
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The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing