Contemplating travel to Australia? Do it! This was one trip that far surpassed all of my expectations. I covered a lot of ground during my stay but still only saw a portion of all the country has to offer – I can’t wait to return!
New South Wales (Sydney)
I chose Darling Harbour as my home-base whilst in Sydney since it is close to public transportation (bus, train, ferry) and easy to navigate to sites on foot. Sure, there are a lot of tourist attractions here too, but even if you want a more local experience, the proximity to other walkable areas is worth having to stroll past a shopping mall, indoor “zoo” and arcade along the way. Streets and paths are safe here and there are pedestrians out at all hours so I always felt comfortable. Purchasing an all-day ferry pass is a smart option if you want to go back and forth to various ports such as Sydney Harbour, Manly, etc. in the same day. Take advantage of the variety of transportation options – they are all very reasonably priced. Hiring a taxi would be my last suggestion since it is the most pricey option and not really necessary.
Sometimes referenced as Circle Quay (pronounced “circle key”), this area is a ferry hub and connections are easy and well-timed. Street performers and coffee stops line the walking paths. You just hop off one ferry and walk a short distance to another dock to catch a connection. On the way to/from Circular Quay from Darling Harbour, you see the huge Harbour Bridge from both sides. Look closely and you will spot tourists in tight packs climbing the arch. I did not do this at the recommendation of two friends who said you cannot carry cameras or other items and have to wear special jumpsuits and harnesses during the slow climb. For more information on the bridge climb though, here is the link. The iconic opera house is at Circular Quay also – be sure to come into the harbor during both the day and night to see different views. The opera house is often lit in different colors and patterns. When I was there, both the Australian and French flags were flown from the top of the bridge and the opera house spotlights were blue, white and red in remembrance of the victims of the Paris bombing (2015). Also well visible at night is nearby Luna Park which had previously been called Harbourside Amusement Park. Luna has a chilling past but several movies have been filmed on site.
This outdoor market area always seems to have something going on. Local vendors offer everything from arts and crafts to sweet treats and jewelry. It is also just a fun area to stroll around and window shop. This link has more information about special events.
Just a ferry ride away from Sydney lands you at Manly and Syndey’s Northern beaches. The ferry drops you just a short walk from the main beach itself with markets along the way (to purchase water or snacks, for example). Comfortable shoes are great here to do the beautiful beach walks. Paths lead you past outdoor art, quaint restaurants, singing birds, local surfers, etc. Signs will give you warning about the coveted water dragon population here. These are similar to iguanas that live near the paths. One startled me as I was hiking some stairs through the trees but even if you spot one, they are skittish and will not bother you or stick around long.
Getting to Bondi beach (pronounced “bawn-dye”) from Sydney takes some creativity to save on cost, but it is worth it. Plan for a full day here with a small daypack containing snacks, sunglasses and a hat, refillable water bottle and comfortable shoes for walking. To get here, take the train to Bondi Station. Then, look for the 380/381 bus to Bondi Beach. The bus stops directly across the street from the beach so you cant miss it. There are restrooms in each pavilion along the beach walk. Fresh water is available free along the beach from purification stations. Bondi has lots of brightly colored street art walls along the beach walk. You can stay here to enjoy the ocean or start your hike along the coastal walk. The path terrain changes occasionally from cement to stairs to metal grates, etc., so comfortable shoes are a big benefit. There are many scenic points of interest along the walk between beaches. After Bondi, you will find Bronte (pronounced “bron-tay”) beach and then Tamarama. Eventually, you will make your way to Clovelly and then to Coogee (pronounced “coo-jee”). Restaurants exist along the walk but plan this and water refills well since some areas are more residential than others. You can catch a bus back to Bondi Station so keep an eye out for the bus stops. Take some time before finding the train back, though, to poke around the streets near Bondi Station. There are some famous street murals here that are fun to find, all just next to the station in safe walkable areas.
Royal Botanical Garden
Near the Opera House is Sydney’s Royal Botanical Garden. Bird enthusiasts, this is the place for you. A variety of wild native birds can be found amidst the garden’s hills and paths. Everything is walkable in this area, including the nearby Art Gallery of New South Whales, St. Mary’s Cathedral and Hyde Park.
Diverse food, shopping and Asian culture can be found in Sydney’s Chinatown. Fun decor and cheap souvenirs abound. Find the Emperor’s Puff food stall – you can buy a tiny cream puff type of treat that is delicious and not too sweet. Just be careful since the temperature is very hot as they roll off the machine.
Near Chinatown and also walkable from Darling Harbor is the Chinese Garden of Friendship. This relaxing city garden celebrates the five elements of earth, fire, water, metal and wood. There is a small fee to enter but the garden has beautiful botanicals and is home to some interesting birds. If you look carefully, you can find the matching Chinese zodiac statues and placards throughout the garden. Authentic tea and pastries are available at the onsite Teahouse.
South Australia (Port Lincoln and Surrounding Islands)
Flights into Port Lincoln (through Adelaide) are small but definitely worth the adventure. Upon arrival, it is easy to notice that most of this region’s economy is based in farming, fishing and shark tourism. Port Lincoln is referred to as Australia’s “Seafood Capital of the World” and toted as having the country’s most millionaires per capita. Australia-trained thoroughbred mare Makybe Diva was also the first horse to win three Melbourne Cup titles and the highest stakes winner in Australian history at over $14 million (her owner…Tony Santic, a Croatian fisherman from Port Lincoln). And aside from the great whites, there are number of other native animals that call this area home. Emus and kangaroos cross the roads at will with little notice so take care especially in the more rural areas. I still recommend hiring a car here for a couple of days – otherwise taxis are expensive and the area is easily drivable on nice roads. Try the local prawns and oysters – very fresh.
Easily the most beautiful place I have ever been, Coffin Bay was amazing. Pure white sand dunes, ultra fine soft sand beach, clear turquoise water and no one else in sight made this experience amazing. I did not edit people out of this panoramic photo – there was literally empty. Granted, it was a windy day, but still – so perfect.
So here it is…the real reason I visited Australia. There are a few places in the world where you can get into a cage at the ocean’s surface and dive with great white sharks. However, there is only ONE place in the world that offers ocean floor cage diving and only ONE dive operator that runs this multi-day live-aboard for advanced divers. During each dive, four divers wearing heavy weight harnesses enter the cage with a divemaster and descend 85-90 feet for about ~35 minutes. Seeing the sharks’ curiosity and investigative behavior up close is quite remarkable. Aside from sheer size, I was taken by how quickly these apex predators can appear and how equally quickly they can disappear into the shadows. Without sound under water, these majestic hunters would never be seen approaching – their agility and ability to “turn on a dime” are really impressive. Each shark has unique markings and features so it was easy to document and count unique sharks. We had 15 different sharks appear during my dives, including one large female which was early for the season.
Great Ocean Road is a scenic coastal drive outside Melbourne (pronounced “mel-bun”). Each town along the ~150 mile drive has its own claim to fame, architectural character and historic landmarks. The drive is safe, smooth and not overrun with traffic. Travelers who want to save money can hire compact vans to drive and sleep in. Community car parks in addition to inexpensive hostals are available in many areas.
There are over 100 painted wood sculptures (called bollards) around Corio Bay. You can search for them on your own or use a map available at one of the volunteer-staffed information stations. Created by artist Jan Mitchell, each bollard represents a part of Geelong’s history.
Golf course kangaroos? Oh yes. Around dusk each evening, Anglesea Golf Club becomes a kangaroo paradise. The estimated 300+ roos which call this area home seem to emerge from the shadows of the trees and bush to find their way onto the greens and near the bunkers each evening. Weather does influence their behavior and location though.
Just a short drive past Anglesea on the way to Lorne is Guvvos Beach and Aireys Inlet. Beautiful sunsets become even more the picturesque as the fog rolls in over the hills toward the coast. Split Point Lighthouse, constructed in 1891, can be found along the coastline near Eagle Rock marine reserve and sanctuary.
This is a great little town with restaurants, grocery market and car park. I departed early in the morning in time to watch the sunrise and continue on to Kennett River. Koala Kafe is a must-stop destination here. You can park and walk to the eucalyptus trees just a few meters away to look for the lazy koalas. You are pretty much guaranteed they will be there…and sleeping. They don’t move around much. Beware the birds though! The rainbow lorikeets are everywhere – they land on your car, your head, your shoulder, etc. because they are expecting you to come with food. Other varieties of feathered friends will greet you too – ducks, cockatoos, oh my.
The next unique area you find on Great Ocean Road is Carisbrook Creek. This is somewhat easy to miss due to limited signage, but you may notice the stone towers from the road. A short careful walk down the embankment allows you access (at low tide) to the stone tower area but you need to time this well if you are going to be crossing the river to return to the road. There is also a 50 meter waterfall about a 15 minute hike inland but I skipped that to keep moving forward.
This is one of the larger towns along Great Ocean Road. There are plenty of restaurants, shops, information stations and tours based here such as scenic helicopter tours. Maits Rest is a pretty self-guided rainforest walk just past Appollo Bay in Cape Otway National Park. You just have to watch for the turn-off since the entrance is not very well marked. Lush ferns and palms are nestled between huge mountain ash trees up to 300 years old. The sheer size and exposed roots are incredible.
Twelve Apostles is probably the most coveted destination along Great Ocean Road. Formed by erosion, these natural limestone stacks are simply spectacular. The color of the ocean paired with the color of the sky and the activity of the surf can change the appearance from day to day. Photos do not do this justice.
- Remember, Aussies drive on the left! There are signs to remind you, especially along Great Ocean Road. Navigating on the left (when you are used to driving on the right) is simple in rural areas, but it is a totally different story, for example, driving through the narrow one-way streets of Melbourne, busy highways, rush-hour traffic, navigating around trams and trolleys and buses, in the rain, etc. so be prepared before embarking on this challenge.
- I actually enjoy being disconnected from technology when I travel, but I know some people enjoy constant connectivity. If so, get a SIM card for local phone service. I survived my entire adventure just fine with only free wifi service. Even Great Ocean Road has free wifi access in most places. It may not be fast, but it works.
- Check the conversion rate on currency to be sure you know the equivalent for the Australian dollar (AUD). When I travelled, the exchange was significantly in my favor which meant I could afford to do much more for less.
- If you are shopping while in Australia, be sure you research the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS) which allows you to receive a refund of your Goods and Services Tax (GST) or Wine Equalisation Tax (WET) if you meet certain criteria and follow a very specific process. I used the TRS program successfully after purchasing clothing by using the smartphone app and visiting the TRS office in the Sydney airport. I definitely recommend using the app rather than handling this manually at the airport.
- While in Sydney, don’t miss the night view of the Opera House. Some ferries operate after dark free of charge so it is worth venturing out.
- Consider packing a travel sized umbrella – it does rain often in some parts of Australia, especially in the spring.
- Bring an outlet adapter/converter if your home outlets do not look like the photo below:
- And finally, if you request an iced coffee in Australia, be prepared to receive a dessert coffee beverage made with a shot of espresso blended with ice cream and topped with whip cream and chocolate syrup (as opposed to just a plain coffee over ice). Lesson learned.