As luck would have it, a highly placed Australian diplomat sat next to my husband at a business lunch shortly before our trip to Australia. He recommended the following itinerary for first-time travelers to his native land. Said he, “My three priorities would be
- Sydney (suggest 6 nights)
- Uluru/Ayers Rock (suggest 2 nights)
- driving from Brisbane to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast (suggest 4-5 nights).
“Should you have additional time, recommend you drive from:
- Sydney to Canberra via the coast (suggest 3-4 nights)
- followed by Melbourne or Tasmania (3-4 nights).”
And that’s just what we did! Following are the best from our trip and recent articles in Mimi’s Travel File:
Australia’s population is 22 million, of whom approximately 4 million live in Melbourne and 5 million live in Sydney.
SEE THE SIGHTS in Sydney
- See a show at the Opera House, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses six different theaters
- Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge or walk across it for great views. The guided climb up the arching span of the bridge is expensive and not for those afraid of heights–however, what a thrill!
- Get an aerial view of the city by going 40 stories up to the Sydney Tower Eye
- Take a 10-minute taxi ride out of Sydney to Bondi Beach, a lovely crescent-shaped beach famous as a surfing destination. While there…
- Walk along the cliffs from Bondi Beach to Tamara Beach to Bronte Beach and back for gorgeous blue water views; then…
- Check out Icebergs SLC, the swimming club at Bondi’s tip with an outdoor pool. Wedged into a cliff, it’s refilled with sea water whenever the waves crash. Pools like this are an Australian institution found on most beaches but the Art Deco Icebergs pool is among the prettiest.
- Loll away the afternoon upstairs at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, a Mediterranean restaurant with a beautiful perch from which you can watch the surfers on Bondi Beach.
Back in Sydney, see…
- Sydney Aquarium is more theme park than educational, except for the shark and Great Barrier Reef exhibit
- Museum of Sydney is attractive and interesting
- Australia National Maritime Museum is superficial
- ANZAC War Memorial–acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps–a lovely Art Deco building in Hyde Park
- Art Gallery of New South Wales–There are numerous commercial art galleries in Sydney specializing in Aboriginal art but the NSWAM is a good place to learn what the curators consider to be the best. You will also learn answers to such burning questions as: why the ubiquitous use of dots? Because the Aborigines often use the end of sticks to paint so dots are easy.
- Sail around Sydney’s large harbor on an America’s Cup boat…so peaceful and pretty!
EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY in Sydney
- Sydney’s Harbor is L-shaped and lined with restaurants with outdoor patios and amazing views of the Opera House, bridge and the boat traffic. Stroll the harbor to find the restaurant that appeals to you most.
- The Rocks, a formerly bad neighborhood by Sydney Harbor’s docks, is now attractive with a nice assortment of bars and restaurants. We ate at the small, charming Scarlett.
- St. George OpenAir Cinema–This is FUN with a capital F! “In summer, old-timers and first-date couples alike gather at the Open-Air Cinema which screens mainly art-house films. The setting–beside the Botanic Gardens and overlooking the harbor–is thrilling…Many go just to watch the screen rise magically from the water at the beginning of the show.” (from a local brochure) We had a lovely dinner here on the harbor shore with attractive people, gazing at the Sydney skyline. The giant movie screen rose up from the shore and the movie began.
SHOP in Sydney
Paddington neighborhood is known for its top Australian fashion and jewelry designers.
STAY in Sydney
Pick a city hotel near the harbor (Circular Quay/the Rocks) so you will be close to everything.
- Park Hyatt Sydney–(recommended by Andrew Harper, Travel+Leisure 2016, and moi, as I saw it in person) While this bedroom’s decor (below) is a bit spartan, the hotel is in a great location and has a pretty pool…(155 rooms)
- The Langham–(recommended by Andrew Harper and Travel+Leisure 2016) Its website is beautiful! (98 rooms)
- The Four Seasons looks pretty but it’s 531 rooms, which is just too BIG!
Ayers Rock, aka Uluru, aka the Red Centre
Uluru is a 3-hour flight from Sydney and a 1.5 hour time change from Sydney: THAT’S RIGHT, a one and a HALF hour time zone change!
Uluru is 6 miles in circumference and abruptly rises 1140 feet above the surrounding flat desert. Formed 300 million years ago, Uluru is a dramatically beautiful place and sacred to the Aborigines. The area’s other fantastic geologic formation is Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas (see lumpy mountains below).
SEE THE SIGHTS in Uluru
- Ride a camel to dinner in the beautiful desert! My husband and I rode for an hour from the camel camp with our cameleer…just the three of us. Camels are very sweet animals that can easily carry half of their weight.There were no other people around, just the three of us and the short, scrubby bushes, grasses and trees of the silent desert. The Olgas mountains were behind us as we rode towards Uluru.
- Upon dismounting, a waiter welcomed us with cocktails. We then dined under the stars at the Voyages “Sounds of Silence” dinner in the desert, with about 50 tourists from all over the world. A beautiful experience surrounded by nature, despite its corny name.
- Hike to the Olgas with a guide (private, of course), who will point out the Aboriginal art on the walls of the caves that you might not see otherwise.
- Take a tour with SEIT Australia to the base of Ayers Rock and explore the Cultural Center. The tour ends with sunset cocktails overlooking the vast desert and lovely, lumpy Uluru.
STAY in Uluru
- Sails in the Desert –Despite its somewhat cheesy website, this hotel is nice. Our room had a large private terrace on the second floor. (228 rooms but feels smaller)
- Longitude 131°–This is THE place to stay. It is a luxury wilderness camp with unobstructed views of Uluru. Kate and Wills stayed here in 2014…and so should you! (15 tents)
Sydney to Canberra via the Coast
Drive 1 1/4 hours south from Sydney to Canberra on the coast road through the Southern Highlands region. Similar to California’s Napa Valley, the SH is a big foodie and vineyard Mecca. You will see rolling green hills, manicured cattle farms, and big, old rounded mountains.
SEE THE SIGHTS in the Southern Highlands
- Burrawang is an especially charming little town, with gingerbread cottages, tin roofs, front porches, and lovely gardens.
- Visit beautiful Kiama, on the Pacific Ocean Coast, where mountains drop down into rolling hills, which cascade onto white sand beaches with bright, blue/green water. Check out Bateman’s Bay and then up the plateau to Braidwood and Bungendore. Jervis Bay has good scenery. Should you choose to drive the inland route from Sydney to Canberra, go through Berrima and/or Bundanoon (sheep farms and forest).
STAY in the Southern Highlands
Peppers Manor House–good restaurant here!
The only thing we found of interest during our one-night stay here in Australia’s capital was the beautiful War Memorial, from which you can get a good view of Canberra.
SEE THE SIGHTS in Melbourne
- Lose yourself in Melbourne’s network of narrow alleys with their gallery-sanctioned graffiti, easily three stories high! Specifically, AC/DC Lane, Howe Place, Croft Alley, Duckboard Place, and more.
- Federation Square–Attractive modern building complex with an excellent visitors center, where you can pick up good self-guided walking tour maps; in addition, it’s a lively spot to have a light lunch while watching the street performers, tourists and professionals scurrying back to work. Also at Federation Square is the…
- National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Center–stunning modern building that showcases Aboriginal art, as well as paintings and sculptures by 19th, 20th and 21st century Australian artists.
- M.V. Grower–Take the 1/2 hour boat tour on the Yarra River that runs through Melbourne on a 1924 classic river boat. Because we took the last cruise of the day, we had the boat all to ourselves (plus the captain, of course)!
- Tour the two, huge National Galleries of Victoria, whose buildings look like the Royal Palace in Beijing; the Ian Potter Center is a particularly striking modern building.
- Museum of Melbourne–another huge, gorgeous, modern building where we learned a little about the history of Melbourne
- Take the free streetcar from the Docklands to the Fitzroy (hip) neighborhood
STAY in Melbourne
- The Adelphi–stylish, attractive, convenient location on Flinders Lane, once the center of the city’s rag trade, it is now home to hip restaurants, shops and galleries, as well as a nice mix of Victorian-era buildings and beautiful modern ones. (34 rooms)
- The Langham–was highly recommended in a recent issue of Travel+Leisure but the website looks a bit bland; (360+ rooms)
- Andrew Harper of the esteemed Harper’s Hideaways travel newsletter recommends the Hotel Lindrum (59 rooms) and the Park Hyatt (240 rooms)
EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY in Melbourne
- Movida–fun restaurant with DELICIOUS tapas, located on a graffiti-painted side street, around the corner from The Adelphi Hotel. We ate here twice during our three-day stay in Melbourne!
- Queen Victoria Market–charming food stalls from another place and time; describes itself as the “largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere.”
- Casa Ciuccio–cute restaurant with delicious tapas in the Fitzroy neighborhood
- Four out of five of travel guru Andrew Harper’s top Australian restaurant picks are in Melbourne. They are Chin Chin, ezard, Flower Drum and Grossi Florentino.
Fly the two hours from Melbourne to Brisbane, and drive to Noosa along the Sunshine Coast. The terrain is steeply hilly and green with lots of beautiful, bright, flowering trees and bushes.
STAY in the Sunshine Coast
Spicers Clovelly Estate–10 rooms; great, fancy meals served in the main building; we stayed in a free-standing house which was big and wonderful with a front and back porch
SEE THE SIGHTS in the Sunshine Coast
- Glass House Mountains–drive the Glass House Mountains Scenic Drive
- Drive around the hilly roads, visit little towns, like Montvale and Maleny, that are small and whose houses are 1-2-story buildings that look like a mix of 1920’s buildings from little towns in the rural U.S. west or south.
- Hike Kondalilla National Park rain forest
- Walk through the beautiful Mary Cairncross Park–a rainforest with palm trees where we say five wallabies (like beagle-sized kangaroos)
- Drive to Noosa Heads, up and down sometimes steep roads surrounded by bright green pastures for cows, pineapple farms, banana plantations, and bright flowering trees to the…Walk its gorgeous beach where the water is a dreamy Coke bottle blueish green; at Sails Beach Restaurant and bar, while watching the surfers; and take the public ferry around the harbor for the one hour tour.
Fly out of Brisbane home or to Tasmania or to New Zealand. You name it! The world is your oyster.
Traveling Companion: “The Road to Coorain,” by Jill Ker Conway, who was born and raised in Australia’s outback, after which she moved to the US and eventually became Smith College’s first female president. Check out Longitude Books for other suggestions of books set in AU and/or considered Australian classics.
NOTE: The Great Barrier Reef was excluded from this itinerary because we traveled in January, which is the GBR’s hurricane season.
I leave you with these People Magazine-worthy parting shots from the arch atop Sydney’s harbor bridge…