Thousands of miles of glorious coastline and beaches, the world’s greatest fringing coral reef, unique and varied wildlife, the rugged outback desert landscapes and lifestyles, sophisticated cities, tropical rainforest, and alpine national parks – the question is not so much what to see, but how much of it can you see.
Australia has intrigued the rest of the world for more than two centuries, with its fantastic marsupials, noisy and colorful birds, and incredibly vast sweeps of the outback landscape. Home to one of the world’s oldest human cultures, it is also a geological marvel, famous for the haunting monolith of Uluru, the tropical wetlands of Kakadu, and of course the magnificent Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland and Northern Territories
Queensland, home to the Great Barrier Reef, is the biggest tourist destination in the country. The coastline is glorious and the weather warm to hot year-round. In the south, the Gold Coast is a Miami-style strip of hotels, theme parks, and surf beaches that almost merges with the state capital, Brisbane. Farther north, the Sunshine Coast is mercifully less developed and includes the chic resort of Noosa Heads. Nearby Fraser Island is an interesting oddity – the world’s largest sand island covered in rainforest.
Australia’s crowning glory is the Great Barrier Reef, the chain of coral reefs and lush tropical islands that flanks the Queensland coast. No adjectives or glossy underwater photographs can adequately prepare you for the magical moment when you don a mask and poke your face into the warm tropical waters of this seductive dreamscape. Cairns, Port Douglas, and the resorts of the Whitsunday Islands are the primary bases for exploring the reef. Darwin, the capital of the tropical Northern Territory, is an ideal base to explore the Wetlands, wildlife, waterfalls, and Aboriginal rock art.
Sydney sprawls. Despite its relatively small population, it covers almost as large an area as Los Angeles and is seven times larger than Paris. The historical section of the city is known as The Rocks, a beautifully restored warren of alleyways and old stone buildings tucked away under the southern approach of the Harbour Bridge.
Pitt Street and George Street are the city’s two main thoroughfares. They begin at Circular Quay and stretch through the heart of downtown Sydney. Both streets are lined with glittering skyscrapers and department stores, as well as gritty old shops that have somehow managed to survive the scramble for building land. The juxtaposition of styles, old and new, gives Sydney flair. The inner east section has Kings Cross, Sydney’s red-light district, filled with pulsing nightclubs, fast food, and crime.
Western Australia is enormous and mostly desert. The coast road from Broome down to the capital, Perth – a 1,400-mile (2,255 km) jaunt – passes beaches, remote towns, and Ningaloo Reef – Australia’s longest continuous fringing coral reef. Much shorter than the Great Barrier Reef, it is no less impressive. Unlike its better-known cousin, it is easily accessible from shore – never more than 2 miles (3 km) out and in some places only a couple of hundred yards.
Farther south, wild dolphins come to play in the shallows at Monkey Mia. Thriving Perth is the green southwest of this state. On the city’s doorstep lies the historic port of Fremantle, and a day’s drive south brings you to Margaret River, a significant wine district on a scenic coast.
South Australia and Victoria
The capital of South Australia, Adelaide is noted for its year-round music festivals and sporting events, food and wine, long beach fronts, and its huge defense and manufacturing centers.
The Barossa Valley is an easy 45-mile (72 km) north of Adelaide, with ample signs to the valley’s main towns of Tanunda, Nuriootpa, and Angaston. Of the three towns, centrally located Tanunda is one of the most geared for tourists, with a pleasant main street and a wide selection of craft galleries, cafes, and B&Bs. Cheese lovers should follow Barossa Valley cheese and wine trail. Start at the Barossa Valley Cheese Company in Angaston and pick up a trail map.
If Australia has been an ark for unique flora and fauna, Kangaroo Island has been its lifeboat. This island has remained an unspoiled haven for wildlife and offers a lazy, rural lifestyle only recently invaded by luxury retreats.
East of South Australia lies Victoria, the smallest and greenest of the mainland states. Gold rush wealth flowed through the elegant capital, Melbourne, a garden city of grand Victorian-era architecture. Verdant mountains, wineries, beaches, and colonies of penguins are just a day trip away from the city.