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Highlights of Australia in 16 days: Sydney - The Blue Mountains - The Hunter Valley - Ayers Rock (Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) - Port Douglas - The Great Barrier Reef - The Daintree Rainforest - Cairns - The Whitsunday Islands - Whitehaven Beach - Hamilton Island - The Gold Coast - Brisbane
For our two weeks in Australia, we decided to purchase something called an "AirPass" through Qantas and we thought this worked out to be an extremely convenient and cost-effective way for us to travel. Basically, an AirPass is just an overseas ticket that also includes a number of Australian domestic stopovers. With the pass, we were able to hop around from one gateway to another very easily. (With a high volume of travel in Australia, Qantas has many flight options to offer - the only difficulty we ran into was that we weren't able to get a direct flight from Hamilton Island to Brisbane but, otherwise, the plan offerred all kinds of options to meet our needs) If, like us, you want to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time, you might look into this! (Being from the US, we're not really sure if this option is available from other countries as well but it still might be worth looking into.)
We picked out our AirPass right on the Qantas USA website (www.qantasusa.com) using their easy online planning tool and we found this to be simple and extremely convenient. When you click "Book Now" for an AirPass on this site, you are invited to "connect the dots" on a map that starts at US gateways and allows you to hop around various Australian cities so that you can develop a touring route that works for you - we thought the planning tool was fun and a good way to explore different touring possibilities!
As for Qantas as an airline, we thought the seat pitch on the long-haul flights was not great, but the entertainment systems were fabulous...as well as the relaxed and fun attitude of the flight attendants. The food was pretty decent. On the whole, we would definitely recommend them!
The first stop on our Australian journey, we thought Sydney to be a marvelous city with a lot to offer! We spent some time strolling the streets of "The Rocks" area where we found a great Saturday morning market and ate at a pancake place called "Pancakes at the Rocks". Because of time limitations (and my fear of heights), we chose not to do the lengthy Harbour Bridge Adventure Climb, but did take a leisurely stroll on the pedestrian path up to the Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout (www.pylonlookout.com.au ) where we had a fabulous view of the Sydney Harbour and Opera House. They also have neat little museum in there about the construction of the bridge. After walking around The Circular Quay area (where the ferries depart downtown...a hub area with outdoor cafes and street perfomers) we decided to take the tour of the inside of the Sydney Opera House ( www.sydneyoperahouse.com ). This was a great behind-the-scenes look at the architecture, history, and current functionality of this landmark building. While in town, we also hopped a ferry over to the "Taronga Zoo", which was a really worthwhile experience. After disembarking the ferry, we took a cable car to the top of the hill and followed th path down the hill through the exhibits. They have a lot of great animals here we'd never seen before (such as the platypus and wombats and koalas) and, to us, one of the coolest things bout the zoo wathat several exhibits overlooked the beautiful Sydney Harbour. Another highlight of our visit was a trip to Manly Beach (we took a ferry over there also - which seemed to be part of the experience - at the end of the day we saw surfers and beachgoers getting off the ferry past the businessmen who were waiting to get on). We also visited the Darling Harbour Area (numerous upscale outdoor cafes on the water...kind of smacks of a tourist enclave, but still enjoyable). We went to Chinatown one night for dinner and ate at the "Golden Century" Chinese seafood restaurant. This was an entertaining experience, as the wall in the dining room is lined with aquariums and waiters constantly fish items out of the tanks to weigh them before rushing them back to the kitchen. Despite its large size, Sydney seemed to be very clean and the people were relaxed and friendly - on the whole a great experience for us!
We stayed at the Menzies in Sydney and were pretty happy there...we were especially pleased with the hotel's location. You literally exit the Wynyard Train station, cross the street, and walk into the lobby of the Hotel. Its also easy walking to the Rocks, Circular Quay, and Darling Harbour. See our full review under "Katy_and_Mike".
We took a daytrip to the Blue Mountains during our time in Sydney and would definitely recommend this. We chose not to go with a private tour operator from Sydney and, instead, just took the public CityRail train to Katoomba from the Sydney Cental Railway Station. Our train heading out there was an air-conditioned double-decker train and quite a comfortable ride for the 2-hour journey. Bring a book - there's not much scenery from the tracks, although some views opened up once we cleared the sprawling Sydney suburbs. After disembarking at the Katoomba Railway station, we hopped the "Blue Mountains Explorer Bus" a red, double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus that took us to Scenic World (for the Scenic Railway and Skyrails) and to numerous other hiking paths and scenic lookouts as well as the town of Leura. We did both Skyrails and the Scenic Railway (aka the Steepest Incline Railway in the World...formerly used by Coal Miners - a little more exciting than it looks.) At the bottom of the railway, there is an extensive series of boardwalks where you can explore the forest floor under the canopy before taking another skyrail up to the top of the mountain. There is also an observation area where you can view the "Three Sisters", a rock formation named for an aboriginal legend. Included with the bus pass was also a "Hill Tops and Scenic Lookouts Tour" that was a good way to get some perspective on the blue eucalyptus haze that hangs in the valleys. Other highlights of our tour were a stop at Echo Point and a visit to the town of Leura, where we were able to hop back on the CityRail Train to Sydney. On the whole, a great daytrip!
We took a wine-tasting day trip to the Hunter Valley through a private company called "Activity Tours" ( www.activitytours.com.au ) . We knew ahead of time that "the Hunter" is a much smaller wine-producing area than some others in the country, such as the Barossa Valley near Adelaide, but we still found this to be a fun trip and a great addition to our varied Australian experience. Our tour driver, Adam, picked us up at our hotel and made the day lots of fun - hooking us up with some great wine experts along the way. There was only one other couple on our tour, making it a very comfortable and relaxed day. We visited about four or five different wineries altogether, had some great cellar-door tastings and a full tour of one boutique vineyard, a nice lunch, and even got to taste some cheese and chocolate. The scenery was really nice and they day was very relaxed, especially after a few of the tastings. We'll remember this great day for years to come every time we uncork a bottle of Australian Shiraz!
From Sydney, we took an early (3.5 hour) flight directly from Sydney to Ayers Rock in the "Red Center" of the country. The experience of landing at the airport there was really something because, from the airplane windows, it looks like you might as well be landing on Mars. The earth there is a bright rusty-red in color and, in my opinion, is quite beautiful.
Because we had less than two full days (and only one night) at Ayers Rock, we decided to bypass the upscale resort accomodation and skip the "Sounds of Silence" Dinner and, instead, chose to do an "Overnight Camping Safari" with a private company called "Adventure Tours". ( www.adventuretours.com.au ) We thought this turned out to be an extremely efficient way to experience the highlights of the area. Our medium-sized tour bus picked us up at the resort at 1:45pm and drove us around the rock before taking us to the Anangu Aboriginal Cultural Center. Next, we were taken to view and hike at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) which is another amazing rock formation. While driving around, we saw some wild dingoes and a wild camel running around. Mike was really excited about the dingoes.
Our group returned to the Rock for a Sunset viewing, and our guide surprised us with champagne and appetizers...a nice accompaniment for this great view. The Sunset at the Rock was absolutely stunning - it turned several brilliant shades of red (literally as bright as the glowing coals in a bbq pit). To me, this sunset alone was worth the trip out there.
After dark, we returned to the permanent camp site (our "tents" were almost like cabins - with wood floors and a front door and a nice oscillating fan) where we enjoyed a steak dinner with our group in the screened dining area (I was shocked by how nice it was, they even served us wine with dinner - not too bad for "roughing it"!). The next morning, they woke us up very early to head to the "Sunrise viewing area" where we watched the sun light up the rock along with busloads of other tourists. After this, we were offered the option to climb the rock (which the Anangu aboriginal people ask you not to do) or to take the base tour. We chose the base tour and were rewarded with some spectacular views up at the rock and opportunities to view water holes and cave paintings at the base. Our tour guide also provided a guided tour of some of the aboriginal sites. Our tour was over at noon and we were dropped back at the resort in time to have lunch before heading to the airport for our afternoon flight to Cairns.
The weather was quite warm there (as we were there in late December - summertime) but was tolerable to us (though, admittedly, we are from Texas so we're used to heat). The main drawback to the hot weather is that we noticed the Rock climb and the Valley of the Winds hike will be closed in extreme temperatures. On the morning we were there, the Rock climb was open until 8am and climbers were permittted to finish climbing after that time, but not to start the climb. Also, before our trip, we were very much concerned that the flies would be a problem during our visit. This turned out to be needless worrying, though. Apparently, it was not a bad season for flies - we had an occasional fly buzzing around, but they were definitely not persistant or pervasive.
On the whole, we were definitely glad we did the stopover in Ayers Rock and these are some of our favorite memories from the trip! There really is something powerful and awe-inspiring about The Rock!
After a (2.5 hour) flight from Ayers Rock to Cairns, we were met by a representative of Sun Palm Transport ( www.sunpalmtransport.com ) for our bus transfer to Port Douglas. The trip took one hour and, in the dark with rain falling on the winding coastal road, was a little bit of a white-knuckler. Fortunately, our professional driver, who probably knows that road like the back of his hand, got us safely there. We loved the small-town atmosphere of "Port". The main drag, "Macrossan Street" has many wonderful restaurants and an enjoyable vacation-town vibe. We had dinner at the Thai restaurant one night and this was great! We also enjoyed drinks at Sunset at the "On the Inlet" restaurant overlooking the harbour. We were only here a few days and mainly using Port as a jumping-off point for trips to the rainforest and reef but we could have spent much more time here - we liked Port Douglas a lot.
While in Port Douglas we stayed at the Outrigger Heritage. We were generally pleased with the room and the location was fabulous - right in the center of town. The hotel also has a great resort-style pool courtyard - see our full review of the hotel for more details.
Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef has been a dream of mine since I was a young girl, so this was one of the much-anticipated highlights of the trip! After reading positive reviews on this site, we chose to go with Wavelength's small group snorkel-only trip. Weather forecasts earlier in the week appeared to look too windy (30 knots or more) but, fortunately, the forecasts calmed the day before the trip (to 20-25 knots) and the trip was a go! (We recommend that you wait to book until the weather forecasts are available and book the calmest day during your stay...calmer days apparently make for an easier trip and a better experience).
Because of the last-minute change in weather, our boat (designed to hold a max of 30 passengers) had only 10 passengers on board the day of our trip. We also had a marine biologist named Vanessa. With winds at 20-25 knots, the 90-minute journey out to the outer-reef was a lot choppier than I expected. (There were whitecaps breaking and the boat got tossed around a little - of course, I don't really have much experience with ocean-boating - My husband, Mike had a ball sitting up on the top deck while I held on down below.) We took the Kwells (seasickness prevention tabs) and didn't feel sick, but one passenger on board got terribly seasick.
Wavelength took us to three different spots on the reef for snorkeling and WOW! We got off the boat with no land in sight (a little scary at first) and, under the surface, there was just amazing, beautifully preserved coral and wonderful marine life everywhere! We had a great time snorkeling that day and, despite the rough seas on the way out there, the reef areas where we snorkelled were protected from the waves and and quite calm. The water temperature was also very comfortable for us. Despite the supposed low risk of stingers out on the reef, they required us to wear full-length stinger suits, which were kind of funny but just added to the uniqueness of the experience. Our marine biologist did a great job explaining the marine life and this really helped us appreciate the things we were looking at. Between three snorkel stops and a great lunch, the day went by pretty fast, but will definitely be remembered for a lifetime!
From Port Douglas, we booked a daytrip to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation with Tony's Tropical Tours ( www.tropicaltours.com.au ) and were extremely happy with our tour, Tony's Tour "A". Our driver, Hans, a botanist with great knowledge of local plantlife, picked us up at our hotel and we joined two other couples in a Landcruiser for the trip up into the rainforest. We stopped many times along the way (such as to see Mossman Gorge and the Scenic Alexandra Lookout). Our morning tea on the beach was great and we also enjoyed a Wildlife cruise on the Daintree River, where we spotted a couple of saltwater crocodiles as well as a snake and a bright green tree frog. After swimming in a cool rainforest stream, our lunch was delicious and was followed by the highlight of the trip, an informative guided lecture/walk through the rainforest. This really gave us some perspective on the rainforest. Cape Tribulation beach, our northernmost destination, was beautiful and a lovely spot to snap a few pictures - but too hot and stinger-ridden for lazing on the beach or swimming. Finally, we headed back over the cable-ferry-crossing and to the Daintree Ice Cream Company where we enjoyed ice creams made from passionfruit and something called a "wattlenut". On the whole it was a great daytrip and yet another great experience in our series of adventures.
After Port Douglas, we took the Sun Palm bus back down to Cairns. Cairns is a big city with lots of restaurants and lots of tourists. We arrived in the evening and headed over to the "Night Markets" on the Esplanade, where we found a food court and lots of touristy souvenir shops. There were also a number of restaurants open out on the Esplanade.
The next day, we planned to do the Kuranda train & Skyrail & Tjapukai combination tour but, due to an unexpected illness in the middle of the night, ended up scaling back our plans to a more relaxed day hanging out in Cairns. We walked around the town and enjoyed the public swimming lagoon on the Esplanade. We had dinner at a Greek place called "Fetta's" around the corner and definitely do not recommend this - the servers were terribly rude and the food was not good.
On the whole, Cairns was an OK stop...but I would have preferred to spend more time in Port Douglas and use Cairns only for its airport.
We stayed at the Outrigger Cairns Resort and loved this hotel. The convenient location was right on the Esplanade directly across from the swimming lagoon. Our room, an "ocean view" was spacious and had a nice sofa and balcony. The staff was extremely helpful with a 24-hour front desk and 24-hour tour assistance. To read more, see our review under "katy_and_mike".
From Cairns, we took an early morning (90 minute) flight to Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip - and we would HIGHLY recommend this area to anyone travelling to Australia. If you like blue water with beautiful scenery, great secluded beaches, and amazing snorkelling right off the beach - the Whitsundays would be a great addition to your itinerary!
From Hamilton Island, we boarded a sailing boat and set sail for a 3-day / 2-night journey of island-hopping, beach-combing, sunning, bushwalking (hiking), swimming, and snorkelling. The boat had a total of 12 passengers and 2 crew members on board and was a lot of fun. The boat travelled around and between the islands, mooring in different coves and off of beaches. The fringe-reef snorkelling here was great! The coral is not quite as well preserved as out on the great barrier reef, but still an amazing diversity of marine life and it was really cool to be able to see so much just off the shore of the little islands.
There are lots of crewed sailing boats and yacht charters operating in the area as well as "bareboat excursions" for those willing to be your own skipper. Our boat (a crewed sailing boat - called the "Schooner Friendship") was booked through "Classic Sailing Whitsundays" ( www.classicsail.com.au ) and we would defintely recommend them if you are young (or young at heart) and up for some fun and adventure - the only drawback was that the berths were pretty small, but our double berth was adequate and I slept very well both nights on the boat. Our crew prepared delicious meals for us on our trip - honestly, it was probably some of the best eating we did on our entire trip. (Bruschetta, fresh salads, fresh grilled fish, delicious pesto ) Another place you might look for boats is sailingwhitsundays.com - they have a number of all kinds of different boats listed at all levels of accommodation.
We were told ahead of time that no trip to the Whitsundays is complete without a trip to Whitehaven Beach and that this beach is believed to be one of the top ones in Australia...so this was a much-anticipated part of our sailing trip...and it definitely did not disappoint! The pure, white sand on Whitehaven is magnificent and the water flowing over it turns a beautiful shade of blue. Definitely make sure your boat stops here and, when it does, climb up to the look-out point to gaze out over paradise. Be sure to look down to spot the sting-rays and sand sharks down under the point!
After 3 days and 2 nights on a sailing boat, we had about 24-hours on Hamilton Island before catching a plane to Brisbane. We stayed at the Reef View Hotel for one night and loved it. Our room was huge, as was the bathroom and it turned out to be a very welcome luxury after three days of sailing. The staff at the resort were very friendly and accommodating and were available to assist us from the moment we arrived on the island until our departure. To read more, see our full review under "Katy_and_Mike".
Brisbane was the most pleasant surprise during our trip and exceeded our expectations by far! On arrival, we strolled through the Queen Street Mall area, a pedestrian shopping street where there are lots of shops and some beer-garden-style pubs and cafes. From here, we ventured through the business district up to the Eagle Street Pier, where we found some nice indoor/outdoor restaurants overlooking the water.
The river in Brisbane gives it a nice charm as do the City Cat ferries jumping from point-to-point along the river. They are a fun and practical way to get around. During our stay, we crossed the river and headed over to the South Bank, where we found more outdoor shops and restaurants, as well as a great swimming lagoon and an artistic pedestrian walk covered in flowering bouganvilia. Venturing a little bit further, we came to St. Stephens street and the boardwalk area with more restaurants overlooking the water. I wondered if much of this area was designed with the World's Fair in mind (?) It really was a wonderful place to stroll around outdoors.
One nice thing about the location of Brisbane is that it is only 2 hours north to the "Sunshine Coast" and 1 hour south to the "Gold Coast". With only one extra day to spare, we opted for a trip to the Gold Coast and took a train (and a bus) from the Roma Street Transit Station out to "Surfers Paradise". My expectations of Surfer's Paradise were low because our guidebook warned us that the week of our visit (between Christmas and New Year's) was bound to be crazy, but I had to admit that this was a neat beach experience. There are tons of skyscraper condominiums here literally right on the sandy beach. The beach was wide with good sand and lots of surfers trying to catch one of the rough waves. The ambience was relaxed and perfect for having fun and people-watching. The beach is so large that, despite the crowds of people who showed up to celebrate the holidays, we were still able to find a nice patch of sand all our own. We walked around Surfer's and enjoyed taking it all in. There are a number of theme parks there that might appeal to families, but these didn't make it onto the agenda of our short visit.
We stayed here for three nights and thought this was a good budget-style hotel in a great location. Very close to the Queen Street mall and the Roma Street Transit Station. See our full review under "Katy_and_Mike".
Our last day in Brisbane (and, sadly, our last day in Australia), we took the MV Mirimar Boat Cruise ( www.mirimar.com ) down the Brisbane River to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. We thought the Mirimar cruise turned out to be a great way to see the Brisbane river and the lovely homes that line its banks and, although the commentary was a bit cheesy at times, it included some interesting points on the history of the city. Be forewarned that the Mirimar no longer leaves from the North Quay area next to the Victoria Street Bridge, but from the South Bank on the opposite side of the Bridge. (Our guidebook had some outdated information and we nearly missed the boat.)
The Lone Pine sanctuary has been open since 1927 and is home to over 130 koalas, so we would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get up-close with these fascinating furry creatures. For a donation of AU $10 (which they say goes to the conservation activities of the sanctuary), one of the handlers will hand you a koala of your very own and allow you to "cuddle" with it. This proved to be a pretty intense experience for me, as I realized that I was in fact being permitted to hold a wild animal with very long claws. Still, this was an unbeatable photo opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime experience I couldn't pass up. In addition to the koalas, Lone Pine has some great other wildlife. We particularly enjoyed the kangaroos, including a momma kangaroo with a joey riding around in her pouch. For 50 cents, you can purchase some kangaroo food and hand-feed these creatures...contributing to their life of leisure and luxury there at the sanctuary.
After some time at the sanctuary, the cruise heads back to its dock in Brisbane. There is no commentary on the way back, allowing for the perfect opportunity to kick back and listen to Australian folk music while sipping a beer.