Australia . . . rugged, cosmopolitan, gregarious, whimsical. It’s a destination many people dream about, yet very few ever get to experience. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit Australia, you might envision a land of convicts, crocodiles, and kangaroos. Well, that may have been true 150 years ago (the convict part, anyway—today, there are still millions of roos), but this country that is so familiar and yet so completely different offers an entirely new world to taste and experience. My new husband, Bruce, and I could hardly wait. [This post is from 2006]
I’ve been designing clients’ dream holidays to Australia for years now, so when it came time to plan my own honeymoon, I knew exactly what we were going to do. It’s impossible to think you can cover the entire country in just one visit—Australia is roughly the size of the lower 48 states—so we decided to start with the basics on this trip. Your typical 14-day Australia sojourn includes Cairns—gateway to the Great Barrier Reef—Ayers Rock, and Sydney. But I don’t do typical, so I knew I had to find the very best of the best to explore in each region. Based on what I saw and experienced in Australia, I know you’ll have a fabulous time!
THE “RED CENTRE”
Bruce and I were a little bleary-eyed and jet-lagged after flying non-stop from San Francisco to Sydney, and then on to Cairns. Maybe that’s why we just vegged out and relaxed for the next six days at Kewarra Beach Resort—that, and the fact that it rained half the time. We spent another two days at Daintree Eco-Lodge & Spa, where we indulged in some wonderful post-wedding-stress spa treatments. Unfortunately, because of the weather we weren’t able to go out on the Great Barrier Reef. We did, however, take a fun excursion to Hartley’s Crocodile Farm, where we admired the cute koalas and watched the slightly insane keepers hand-feed hungry crocs.
From Cairns we flew into Alice Springs, a historically interesting town that reminded me a bit of Scottsdale, Arizona, with its arid climate and desert vegetation. This is the heart of the “Red Centre” in the infamous Australian Outback. At the Ghan Railroad Museum we learned that, in the early 1920s, the Ghan Train replaced camels as the major mode of transport in the area; as a result, these work animals were turned loose, and you can still see wild camels roaming the Outback. In fact, we passed a camel farm—or “station”—where you can stop and take a camel ride; actually, we smelled the station well before we saw it.
Speaking of camels, Bruce and I rented a car for the four-hour drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, and to break the monotony we counted road kill: two dead camels, 18 kangaroos, four cows, two emus, and a dingo. Road signs warned that we should fill up every time we saw a gas station—and believe me, we did!
Approaching Ayers Rock was almost surreal, as it loomed larger and larger in the windshield. We stopped and took an escorted tour of the rock formations known Aboriginally as Kata Juta (“Many Heads”); the tour was lousy, but the scenery was absolutely amazing. Having learned our lesson, we toured Uluru (the official Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock) independently, which I highly recommend. We stayed three nights at the four-star Desert Gardens in a Rock View Room; every morning we enjoyed coffee on our balcony and had an amazing, unobstructed view of Uluru.
BACK TO NEW SOUTH WALES
After our four days in the “Red Centre,” we flew back to Sydney for a dose of cosmopolitan comfort, staying at The Observatory, located right across from the Sydney Observatory. We enjoyed a morning harbor cruise, traveling up and into the bay, glimpsing different beaches and historic sights in and around the city. It only took about 90 minutes and was well worth the $44AUD per person. Mostly, though, we just strolled the historic Rocks district and the harbor’s Circular Quay, enjoying the great scenery.
Our day trip to the boutique wineries of Hunter Valley was wonderful, with fun stops at Coopers winery and the much-larger McWilliams, where we were served a full gourmet lunch spread. Our small Red Carpet Tours coach held only 15 people (perfect!), and we had an excellent driver/guide who’s been doing these tours for 13 years.
We wrapped up our sojourn with a visit to Lillianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa, about a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Sydney. It’s a popular retreat for Sydney folks on a weekend getaway, with lots of hiking, biking, and exploring in the area. And the mountains really do look blue; apparently the sun dissipates eucalyptus oil from the plants’ leaves into the air, creating a blue haze that’s quite impressive. Many people only spend four days in Sydney and never leave the city, but I’d highly recommend venturing out for a few nights in Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains.
Talk about whirlwind! With so much to see and do, Australia can be overwhelming when it comes to planning a vacation. But now that I’ve been there and tested the waters, I’m ready to help you plan your perfect Australian odyssey!
HIDING AWAY IN AUSTRALIA
The Observatory, Sydney
Located near the historic Rocks and the Central Business District, The Observatory has everything a discerning and demanding guest could need—the perfect location near restaurants and sightseeing, a savvy and knowledgeable staff, and incredibly elegant colonial ambiance. Each of the 78 guest rooms and 21 suites is exquisitely decorated with dark woods and soothing neutral tones. The pool/spa area is the hidden gem here, massive and totally inviting. We found their concierge to be fantastic—this hotel is first-rate all the way.
Update: This hotel is now managed by The Langham and has emerged from a glorious multi-million dollar reno!
Lillianfels Blue Mountains Resort & Spa, Katoomba
This very elegant European-style country house hotel has beautiful views of the mountains and Jamison Valley from extensive terraces and gardens. Its 85 rooms and suites have windows that open to the fresh mountain air, as well as English-style furnishings, luxe linens, and good-sized baths, some with Jacuzzis®. A heated outdoor swimming pool and a nice spa round out the offerings. And the dining at Darley’s restaurant is to die for! If you take the train, they’ll pick you up at the station, no charge. This was an absolutely enchanting place—I loved it!
Kewarra Beach Resort, Cairns
The lush gardens and lagoons of this casual beachfront resort provide a very private and romantic setting for its 75 rooms and suites, all set in individual bungalows; the grounds are so tropical, we could hardly see another bungalow from ours. I found our room’s Polynesian prints to be dated, but the wood and wicker furnishings were comfortable and in good condition. There’s a private stretch of beach and two freeform swimming pools, plus a rather pricey a la carte restaurant. The resort makes a good base from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
Update: This hotel has done a major overhaul of their public areas and yet their bungalows still retain their tropical charm. I also have other resort recommendations depending on where you want to stay on the coast.
Daintree EcoLodge & Spa, Daintree
This is definitely a destination resort in the midst of the rainforest, about a 40-minute drive north of Port Douglas. Wooden walkways connect 15 very private bungalows to the main lobby, pool, and restaurant. While our room was large and had a beautiful, plush king bed complete with netting, we found the bathroom quite small and unappealing. The real attraction here is the fantastic spa that features ancient Aboriginal treatments.
DARCY’S DOWN-UNDER TIPS
- Book early
Believe it or not, airline seats are becoming harder to find. Peak travel season for Australia is December through March, so if you plan to visit then, pre-booking six to nine months in advance is essential for the best rates. Consider traveling during shoulder seasons (April-June and Sept.–Nov.).
- Buy an Aussie Air Pass
To make travel to Australia more affordable, I recommend the Aussie Air Pass on Qantas. You’ll travel from Los Angeles or San Francisco to up to three cities in Australia from only $1,699 (New York from $1,999), saving at least $300! Keep in mind, once you buy, you fly. Date changes are allowed, but not cities. So make sure you know where you want to go, if not when.
- Buy a fly-net
If you’re in the Alice Springs or Ayers Rock area for any length of time, purchase a $7AUD fly-net for your hat. Believe me, you’ll need it to enjoy the scenery instead of constantly having to swat at black flies. I was vain enough to forgo this small luxury, and halfway through my hike I would gladly have paid someone $50 for their fly-net!
- Driving—not that scary
Driving in a foreign country and on the left side of the road can be daunting. We rented a car in Alice Springs and drove the four hours to Ayers Rock. Would I do it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. If you have four-plus days, rent the car and do the “Outback Loop”: Alice Springs/Ayers Rock/Kings Canyon/Alice Springs. You’ll be able to visit ancient aboriginal sites, tour the national parks, and explore at your own pace.
- Travel by train?
Yes! The train system in Australia is great, especially in and around Sydney. It’s quite easy to tour areas on your own, and several day passes and train packages are available. Try the luxury Ghan Railroad, which travels from Adelaide up to Darwin—a magnificent way to see the Outback in comfort.
- Wine-tasting heaven
If you’ve experience wine-tastings in Napa Valley and paid the $25 for a sip of wine, you’re in for a real treat in the Hunter Valley. We visited several boutique wineries, and they were so happy to see us that we were able to try six, sometimes eight, vintages—for free!
- How to avoid the masses
Generally, I avoid the 50-plus-passenger behemoth tour buses, but I thought I’d give it a whirl at Ayers Rock since, unless you have a car, a bus tour is the only way to see the area. I wanted to experience first-hand an escorted tour of Kata Juta and enjoy an “authentic” Australian BBQ. What a waste! I won’t go into details, but if you want to know more, give me a call. I would, however, recommend Red Carpet Tours out of Sydney, one of several small outfits that offer boutique tours; we booked their Hunter Valley tour and had a blast. These companies run mini-vans for just 10 to 12 passengers, and the itineraries are much more detailed and interesting.