Australia is a big, sparse country that’s tough to see all in one trip. Christian Baines breaks down the best of the land down under for first-timers, or repeat visitors.
Since moving to Canada, I’ve had more than one conversation about someone’s dream trip to Australia. Phrases like ‘Great Barrier Reef’ get tossed around in wistful tones, and I might just mention that Canada’s most depressing months (unless you ski), are Sydney’s most exciting.
To get the scary part out of the way first, Los Angeles to Sydney is a 15 hour flight. Regardless of cabin class, you’ll want a comfortable journey. Virgin Australia has consistently held its 4-star Skytrax rating since 2009, making it one of the highest ranked airlines servicing the route.
Virgin’s widespread domestic network also makes it easy to get around this vast country once you’ve arrived. Your stops will depend a lot on what style of trip you’re planning. A first-time trip through the highlights will probably look vastly different to one that’s more specialized, and states like Western Australia and Tasmania, are unique trips all of their own.
SYDNEY is an essential stop, embodying the perfect mix of outdoor and indoor lifestyle. World class attractions, museums, parks, cultural venues, dining, and beaches are all at your fingertips. Having lived here for six years I may be biased, but in that time I’ve also had the chance to show the city to visitors and see it through their eyes. While I could probably spool out pages and pages of tips, here instead are 5 essential Sydney moments to make the most of your spare time:
1) A harbourside walk from the Rocks to the Botanical Gardens. Fantastic harbour views, with the chance to pick up tickets to a Sydney Opera House performance along the way (Don’t like opera? Don’t worry. With six theatres inside the venue, there’s plenty more to choose from!).
2) Spend the morning at Bondi Beach, but leave before the backpacker crowds turn up! The cliff walk from Bondi to Coogee takes you to picturesque beaches, incredible ocean views and excellent local pubs and cafes.
3) Surry Hills, Paddington or Newtown. Whether it’s Crown, Oxford or King Street, order up a delicious brunch and watch the world go by. Then browse the local bookshops and unusual boutiques, for an everyday taste of colourful Sydney life.
4) Take at least one ferry ride – to Manly, Taronga Zoo, or the Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour. Or ride all the way to Parramatta to glimpse parts of the harbour rarely seen by visitors – or even Sydneysiders.
5) Get out of town in search of wildlife in the Blue Mountains. Not only is the scenery spectacular (including the unforgettable Three Sisters), but you can meet some of Australia’s native animals in a much more authentic habitat than the city can provide.
Perfect for: Everyone. Sights, sports, culture, family attractions, wildlife, scenery, heritage… Sydney has enough to keep any visitor exploring for days.
There’s an historic rivalry between Sydney and MELBOURNE… okay, nobody in Sydney really notices, but you’ll hear about it in Melbourne! That of course just means Australia’s ‘second child’ tries harder, and it shows. This is an essential stop for culture-loving visitors interested in today’s Australia (or the gold rush era, if you fancy a day trip). Melbourne’s museums, galleries and theatre scene are unmatched anywhere else in the country. In fact the whole city is something of a living gallery, with street art sometimes compared to New York or Berlin. Start at Federation Square, which puts you within striking distance of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and dozens of the city’s famous laneways, filled with cafés and boutiques. Comparatively low rents and bold appetites have repaid Melbourne with a booming cultural scene on all fronts. For the free urban spirit, this is probably Australia’s most enjoyable city in which to get lost.
Perfect for: Culture vultures, history buffs, food & wine lovers, urban explorers.
ADELAIDE has been called Melbourne on a smaller scale, but I disagree. The South Australian capital is unique, taking a more laid back approach to culture, though its appetite remains strong. This unassuming city hosts the world’s biggest cabaret festival every June. German immigration has helped shape much of Adelaide and the surrounding wine regions. It shows in the city’s architecture and in its efficient yet picturesque approach to urban planning. While undoubtedly a city for culture and wine lovers, Adelaide is also close to one of Australia’s great wildlife destinations, Kangaroo Island. Besides its namesake marsupials, the island is known for sea lions, impressive rock formations and a wide variety of native birds.
Perfect for: Culture vultures, food & wine lovers, urban explorers, nature lovers.
If you’re keen on visiting the Great Barrier Reef, you’re keen on visiting CAIRNS. Besides being a great getaway spot in its own right, Cairns is blessed with the Reef on one side, and spectacular rainforest hinterland on the other. In short, if you’re coming to Australia for natural beauty, Cairns deserves a place on your list. A range of diving and snorkeling options will introduce you to tropical fish and other reef natives, before a scenic train or ‘Skyrail’ ride takes you through (or over!) the rainforest to charming towns such as Kuranda.
Perfect for: Nature lovers, aquatic adventurers, beach lovers, romantics.
For the adventurous, there’s more to Australia’s top end than the Reef. Yes, DARWIN is often bypassed by first-time visitors. But then, the city itself isn’t why most people visit. Darwin’s certainly a great place to get a different take on Australian history (a history even most Australians know little about), but a visit here puts you within striking distance of Kakadu National Park, where you can get to know Australia’s wild side. See snapping saltwater crocodiles in their natural habitat, along with brolgas and other wetland birds. Or take a visit to the historic town of Katherine. Darwin may not top everyone’s list of Aussie destinations, but it offers unique experiences and major bragging rights.
Perfect for: Nature lovers, history buffs, adventurous travellers.
Deep in Australia’s red centre, it’s easy to mistake AYERS ROCK for a day trip from Alice Springs. It isn’t. Actually it’s a 7 hour drive, one way. Those wanting to see Ayer’s Rock, or Uluru (the correct, indigenous name for the Rock) and nearby Kata Tjuta will have to stay at one of the nearby hotels. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do at both of these sites. Understand that Uluru is sacred to the Anunga people, who’ve nurtured this land for tens of thousands of years. Instead of climbing the Rock, take a guided walk around its base. With much of the area still shrouded in myth, this is an excellent way to learn about its heritage and significance to the Anunga.
Perfect for: Culture vultures, nature lovers, adventurous travellers.
With its theme parks and glorious white sand beaches, Queensland’s GOLD COAST can sometimes feel like a strange blend of Orlando and Miami. With that said, this sprawling region remains unmistakably Aussie, harbouring some of the country’s best family attractions. Many of these are on the Gold Coast itself, while others, such as Australia Zoo can be reached on day trips to the Sunshine Coast or suburban Brisbane. Tourism – both domestic and international – has been the area’s cash cow for most of its lifespan, so those looking for ‘authentic’ Australian experiences might want to spend their time elsewhere. Still, for those who don’t mind a bit of tourist sheen wrapped around lots to see and do, the Gold Coast is a good option, particularly for families.
Perfect for: Families, thrill seekers, aquatic adventurers, nature lovers.
What to do with so many choices?
Goway and Virgin Australia have put together six special itineraries showcasing the many faces of Australia for first-timers, returning visitors, or those with special interests. Best of all, each air-inclusive package is specially priced to get the best value airfare with Virgin, and save on accommodation. All itineraries start in Sydney, then go on to explore either one or two other stops over 11, 13 or 15 days (including flight time to and from Los Angeles).
Guests can take their time in each destination at leisure, or take advantage of Goway’s special ‘Explore the City’ options, which include airport transfer. For those wanting an alternative to the city, ‘Explore the Region’ options encompass nearby destinations such as Kangaroo Island and Kakadu.
Multi destination packages are available from $2199, and include:
13 Day Australian Culture Sydney * Ayers Rock * Cairns
15 Day Australian Icons Sydney * Cairns * Melbourne
15 Day Australian Treasures Sydney * Darwin * Melbourne
15 Day Australian Delight Sydney * Adelaide * Gold Coast
Dual destination packages start at $1799, including:
11 Day Australian City and Reef Sydney * Cairns
11 Day Cosmopolitan Australia Sydney * Melbourne