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It took 8 months to plan this - thought I'd share some of our successes and things we'd do differently; family with three adventurous kids - ages 12, 10 and 8
We took a family trip to Australia in late August. We were travelling with two adults and three children, ages 12, 10 and 8. We flew into Melbourne for 3 days, flew up to Cairns and stayed an hour north, in Port Douglas, for 5 days (Great Barrier Reef area) and then spent 3 days in Sydney. Here are some of my impressions and some advice.
We were lucky enough to fly on miles with United. United allows you to fly into one city and out of another, which expanded our options. I think, however, that they only fly to Sydney and Melbourne - maybe Adelaide. Check with them. Qantas is another option, since if you book with them you can add on up to three internal flights, which I think saves you money if you're paying your full fare. Worth looking into...
We used Virgin Blue for our internal flights. Another discount airway is Jetstar. Go to their websites and sign up for their newsletters. They will email you when they have special deals. Doing that we were able to fly five of us from Melbourne to Cairns and then from Cairns to Sydney for about $1,000 (about $100 a leg per person).
When looking into attractions or even airport transfers, always ask about family rates, since a family often can include up to four children. This saved us a lot of money. Also, hotels often have discount coupons for attractions.
Shop around a lot for tours and remember you can always rent a car and drive. It's a little "interesting" at first if you're not used to left hand driving, but as long as you get out of the cities, you're o.k. Rental rates are similar to in the US, but you get a better rate if you book by Internet before you go - you can always cancel if you decide to do a tour. Both times we rented we got a Honda X Trail, which was sufficient for a family of five and drive well.
When you select tours beware of those that add a lot of stops for shopping unless you're into cheap souvenirs. More on the tours we did below, but I think we chose well - good, educated guides, small groups and very little forced shopping.
With a family, look into staying in "serviced apartments." This gives you room to spread out and the ability to prepare meals, especially breakfast or sandwich/snack supplies. This saves money and, more importantly, time. Kids want to eat their three square meals a day, and one thing that was consistently slow in Australia was restaurant service - nice, but slow. I include my reviews of our accomodations in the reviews portion of this site, but I have mentioned them below.
Overall, with kids, you have to realize your limitations - it may be a great wine region or a great restaurant region, but kids aren't going to enjoy that (though our kids really enjoyed trying new things at the Victoria market and all the different Asian cuisines - they just wouldn't have been up for a multicourse "mod oz" restaurant full of yuppies when they were all jetlagged and tired from walking around all day).
Overall, Australia was great. If I had it to do over again, and a little more time, I would combine it with a stop in Bali, Fiji, Tahiti or some other "exotic" locale - for without the scenery and the animals and sea life, you could really be in the States, fast food, Target and all. Since you're travelling 1/2 way around the world if you're coming from the states, it might be good to experience some more culture unlike our own. That said, many people will appreciate the ease of getting around this beautiful country ( and I'm sure there's plenty of adventure in the outback, which we didn't get the opportunity to visit). Also, I felt very safe at the various attractions, even though there is an element of risk in climbing down, say a 1,000 step stairway in a mountain (at the three sisters in the Blue Mountains) or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. You are NOT in a third world country.
Nice city - not as spectacular, in my opinion, as Sydney - not sure I would put it on an itinerary limited to three places in Australia - but then again, maybe I would. It was our first stop, so we were jetlagged, and it was cold and rainy. Very pretty city by night - nice combination of modern and traditional architecture - nice walks around the river. Make sure to check out the "Little" streets - e.g., Little Collins next to Collins, Little Bourke, etc., and the alleys and arcades - lots of gems of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs in those. Close to the Yarra valley and the Great Ocean Road, which we unfortunately didn't visit - weather was not right for it.
I booked it with the intention of going to Phillip Island, for the fairy penguins, an idea we eventually abandoned because it was too big of a drive in the cold and rain.
We replaced that with a drive to the Yarra Valley and the Healesville Sanctuary thanks to a recommendation from a friend from the region - that was a good decision and we had a great day.
Ideas for a first day - go up the observation tower to get situated then take the free city circle tram to see the central city from the ground level; Second day see some of the attractions, such as the aquarium, the market, the jail or a museum; third day take a day trip - I recommend the Yarra valley and the sanctuary - three days is probably enough - if you have five take an overnight drive to the Great Ocean Road, stopping a lot along the way - not sure how much kids will enjoy great views and picturesque towns - ours would - to an extent, but we decided against it.
Great place to go for breakfast (and lunch); we visited in the morning, walked over to the Melbourne Gaol and came back for lunch. Good produce, fish, meat, cheese, baked goods and also a flea market/ tourist market with the usual crap. We went for the food and because we love markets. Easy to walk to from the CBD
My son HATED this place - maybe too claustrophobic for him. The girls were fascinated - fortunately they missed some of the more gory aspects - like what happened to the women prisoners. Many of the cells are turned into exhibits of prisoners' lives, famous prisoners, famous escapes and much space is devoted to the story of Ned Kelley - see Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country" for more on Mr. Kelley - like Bill Bryson - I don't see what the big deal is. More interesting is the section on the executioner's job, the fact that the gallows were built by their first user and the story of the women and aboriginal prisoners. Also, there's a section on the third floor that talks about the prison being put back into use during the second World War to house AWOL soldiers and POWs - some nice stories there - some of this needs to be filtered for smaller children (mine are 12, 10 and 8). I thought it was worth a visit.
great introduction to sea life in Australia - good rainy day activity - we had a cold, rainy stay in Melbourne, so this was good
fine wine bar and Chinese food on Little Bourke Street. If you're from the U.S. you won't even recognize this as Chinese food. Lovely!! (not cheap, but VERY good)
good budget hotel - see my review by "out of VA"
Lovely wildlife park with a world class veterinary hospital to rehabilitate wild animals. Informative staff; easy drive from Melbourne - near the Yarra valley wineries, although we didn't make it to any because we spent so much time at the park
This was a great place to spend a rainy day and a good value. Well laid out, near beautiful gardens and historic buildings, short walk to Lygon street restaurants - worth a visit. From their website:
Situated in Carlton Gardens and next to the historic Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne Museum is an exciting and innovative attraction - including permanent and touring exhibitions, dynamic performances and events, cafÃ©s, IMAX Theatre, gift shop, and undercover parking.
Main items of in interest to us were wildlife and sea life, but it was also a pretty town with lots of places to eat, drink, look at the marina, etc. We especially liked a late afternoon lunch at Soul and Pepper (mentioned by others) - in the late afternoon the sun is going down and all the day trip boats and sailboats are coming back into the harbor. We also had a good time at the Iron Bar - the menu is kitchy, using a lot of Australian slang, but the food is well prepared (Fodor's said this too). We stayed for the cane toad races at 7:30, which were hilarious. It's sort of a comedy show with toads. My 8 year old had her ticket number called, which meant she got to be a "jockey." She had to pick up a toad, kiss it and make it travel across a table by blowing a birthday horn at him. You had to be there, but it was pretty funny.
See my review - great place to stay with kids - better than a hotel - 2 story townhouse with fully equipped kitchen and laundry room - across from the beach - 15 minute walk from downtown. There are others, but we didn't want to shop around and we liked this place.
I emailed with them ahead of time and arranged to be picked up by van from the airport. This was well worth it, since we landed at 10 p.m. and it's an hour ride (a very curvy ride up the coast). I think it was $105 for a family of five round trip, though that could be the one way price...senior moment...but it's really the best way to go).
This place was great - I would say the Healesville sanctuary was a bit better, but "Breakfast with the Birds" is a must do. The food is good and there are hundreds of exotic birds walking around and joining you at your table. Definitely try to catch the various guided walks and keeper presentations. You can learn a lot and my kids loved it - especially getting to feed the birds. Also, they have two casowerries (sp?) - a prehistoric bird I had never heard of before going to Australia - amazing creatures. They also allow you to get up close and personal with the pea-brained, but ever so cute koalas, and to pet a wombat - this one's name is Max, and he's an orphan they intend to release into the wild. They also sell roo food and the roos are very nice. Great day. It's a 30 minute bus ride to the southern limits of Port Douglas - or you can probably bike there in the same amount of time.
OK, once again memory fails me on the name, but as you are driving toward Daintree village - pass the turnoff for the ferry, the second river cruise sign you see is where we went. Our guide, who seemed to own the company, was an old guy from Texas who was very knowledgeable about the animals and plants you encounter sailing up the river. You also see a number of crocs. I understand from another reviewer who was from Florida how this could seem boring, but we loved it - loved the beautiful river views, learning more about mangroves, spying crocs in the sand. We took the 1 hour cruise - that's probably enough, especiallly if you're trying to get up across the ferry and up the coast.
Just north of the jindalba walk you will find the daintree ice cream company. They make fresh ice cream in tropical and tribal flavos. There's one choice - a cup with the 4 flavors of the day - ours were apple and cinammon, rasberry, coconut and wattle seed (which tastes a bit like coffee). It was delicious. You must go.
GREAT day - we went just days before Steve Irwin was killed. It was cold, so defnitely rent the wetsuit. Also, buy their CD (AUS $25) with pictures of the day - our kodak disposables did a servicable job, but you have to pick through a lot of pictures- theirs and yours, to get a good representation of an amazing day. This tour goes to three spots and it's devoted only to snorkelers (no waiting for the divers to get on their gear). You are accompanied by a marine biologist who gives a talk about corals and sea life (very interesting). It's limited to 30 people. They put on a good lunch and they sell soft drinks and beer (but you can't have a beer until you're out of the water for good). They keep a good eye on you. They have a stash of "noodles" on board so that you can hang out and look as much as you want without getting tired. The gear was high quality so we didn't get fogged up and water logged. They had suits and gear to fit everyone from my eight year old to some of the bigger people, though there was nobody who was really extra large on the boat, so I don't know about that. They also have a good supply of seasick pills (TAKE THEM - you don't want to ruin your day) and sunscreen. This was expensive - almost $500 for a family of five (American $$), but well, well, worth it. If you are going to splurge on one tour, this is it.
Getting around - hoofing it is best - you see all the nooks and crannies of the city. We looked into both the Sydney explorer and the Bondi explorer buses. For one thing the savings were only realized if you had three full days to hop around on and off the bus and see the sites. Everything we visited was walking distance in Sydney - anyway you should take your time and look around rather than speeding by in a bus.
This turned out to be a great ending to our stay - beautiful apartment on the 46th floor overlooking a beautiful city. A little out of the main areas, but 10 minutes walk to Darling Harbour and 15 to the circular quay - we really liked this.
Amazing building, amazing views from within and outside. Don't miss this. The tour is worth it - it's an hour. The kids were very interested. It's an iconic structure - one of the most recognizable in the world. Spend some time there.
We went there in the afternoon after visiting the Circular quay and the Opera House. The main reason we chose Manly over Bondi in our limited time was that we could take the ferry, which is a 30 minute ride throug the harbor and it's very very beautiful. If you get a family ticket each adult gets to take a child through for free and a family pass allows you to ride the ferries (and maybe the buses) all day. From Manly we took the ferry back to the Circular Quay and then took another ferry, at sunset (6:05) to Darling Harbor - even though they're only a 15 - 20 minute walk away from each other the ferry crosses the harbor again to Luna Park and then heads back to Darling Harbor for more spectacular views. Way cheaper than a cheesy tour.
But back to Manly Beach - a nice town with what appears to be a number of fresh fish restaurants and others that look more reasonable than in central Sydney. We were hoping to see more surfers but it was a bit chilly. I'm sorry we never made it to Bondi - we should have gone there instead of the Rocks market.
Nice historic area. We went for the touristy craft market and could have lived without it. Go to Bondi beach instead. Wish we had.
definitely go here if you like markets - good place for lunch. A bit hectic, but it's the real deal. Don't eat at the first place you see if you can possibly wait and go a little deeper into the market. Interesting place a little off the beaten path
DON'T do this - it's expensive - the whole ride around the whole city takes 10 minutes. We stayed on for two loops just to justify throwing out our money - it's a way to trap tourists - our guide on the Blue Mountains tour the next day said that Sydneysiders hope the whole damn thing falls down - amen to that.
I wish I could remember the name of the tour company that we used, but the tour was called the "Blue Mountains Eco Tour" and we bought it at the tourism kiosk at wharf 6 on the circular quay. I had originally rented a car, but I'm so glad we did the tour - it was about $180 for a family of 5 plus lunch and scenic rail tickets ($8 each). I liked that the tour said "if you like souvenir and chocolate shops this is not the tour for you." At this point we had pet enough kangaroos and we just wanted to explore the Blue Mountains region without the stop at the Wildlife park or other "shopping" stops. The small bus of 20 people and our funny, quirky guide was a great way to visit the Blue Mountains. We went to Euroka park, Leura, Wentworth Falls and Katoomba. There were opportunities for those who wanted to do longer more stenuous hikes to do so (we did) or not (most of our group liked the hiking part). I recommend this tour and sorry I don't remember the name. It was loosely affiliated with the Youth Hostel, though the people on the tour were all ages and came from all types of hotels (the tour picks you up in the morning, a definite plus).
Great, upscale chinese - upstairs place in the heart of Chinatown on Dixon street. Not cheap, but a great meal.