If your vision of Australia doesn’t extend much further than Crocodile Dundee throwing another shrimp on the barbie, a trip down under will leave you pleasantly surprised. One of the most diverse and fascinating countries on the planet, Australia is full of natural beauty, as well as a surfeit of arts, culture, and great food (and wine). Now that our friends at Qantas and Tourism Australia are offering what they’re calling the Ultimate Aussie Pass — which lets you jet around Oz at pleasantly discounted prices — there’s never been a better time to go. Of course, part of the joy of discovering such a massive country is just getting out and exploring, but it does help to have a bit of a helping hand to point you in the right direction. So, with that in mind, here’s our insider’s guide to Australia’s five top destinations, including where to go, what to see, and how to find the action that only the locals know about. Read up and start planning your adventure.
When you think of popular images of Australia, it’s most likely Sydney that’s coming to mind — the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the beaches. Australia’s biggest city is also its most spectacular, and one of the prettiest in the world, spread around the gleaming expanse of the harbour. But it’s also one of the more dynamic and culturally diverse cities on Earth, and a fine place to start your visit.
Where to go
Sydney’s geography can be confusing, as everything’s set around the harbour, which seems to contain limitless coves, bays and inlets — but friendly locals will always be happy to set you right if you get lost. The city’s center is a great spot to begin, with shops, hotels, and activity aplenty. To the east is the lovely Hyde Park, then the raunchy charms of Kings Cross and its more staid neighbor Potts Point. Glebe and Balmain are cosmopolitan harbour-side enclaves, while the Inner West areas of Newtown and Marrickville have plenty of grungy charm. Across the other side of the harbour, the North Shore is a whole different world, home to some of the city’s most prestigious real estate and prettiest beaches.
What to do
You should catch at least one ferry and marvel at just how pretty the harbour is (the experience puts the Staten Island Ferry to shame, for sure). You should also spend a day at the beach if the weather’s good — Bondi is the city’s most famous, but we prefer Bronte, which is a little quieter, set on a pretty little park, with a saltwater swimming pool carved into the rocks at one end of the sand. Away from the water, art lovers have plenty of options. The excellent Museum of Contemporary Art is closed until early 2012, but definitely worth visiting once it re-opens; and in the meantime, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a host of indie galleries fill the hole just fine. Adventurous types can climb the Harbour Bridge, if so inclined. And visit the opera house, of course — even if you’re not opera-inclined, the architecture is spectacular, and there are also often non-opera shows to be seen (we saw Goldfrapp play there a couple of years back, and it was amazing).
Where to go out
Sydney loves its pubs, and there’s always going to be one close to wherever you are. We’re partial to a night at the Cricketers Arms (Surry Hills), a pleasantly down-to-earth institution that has a whacking big beer garden and a lot of charm. If you’ve been hanging out in Newtown with all the cool people, you can stop into the iconic Town Hall Hotel (known to all and sundry as the “Townie”) or any of the other watering holes on King Street. And if you’re in the city, you should definitely hit up GoodGod Small Club on Liverpool Street, which is probably Sydney’s most fashionable venue at the moment, and a fine place to catch a band or just, y’know, drink.
Where to eat
A quintessentially “Australian cuisine” is an elusive beast, but if you’re going to find it anywhere, it might just be at Bloodwood (Newtown), which serves food that mixes influences from Australia’s British heritage and its Asian locale. Eleswhere, US diner food seems to be all the rage at the moment, and places like The Norfolk (Surry Hills) are serving pretty impressive down-home comfort food — although if we had to choose one diner, it’d be The Dip, which also happens to be a part of GoodGod Small Club. If you’re staying in Kings Cross, you can wander down to Govindas, an Indian restaurant that shows films as an added incentive. Or, if you want something a bit more regionally appropriate, try any of the city’s apparently limitless supply of snappily titled Thai restaurants.
There are plenty of options for awesome expeditions out of Sydney, but it’s hard to look past the Blue Mountains, a world heritage-listed region of quite spectacular beauty whose foothills start barely 30 miles out of the city center. They’re named for the distinctive blue haze the mountains take on when viewed from afar; up close, they’re home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful countryside you’ll see anywhere in the world. Further north is the Hunter Valley, which forms a lush green counterpoint to the mountains — it’s also home to some of NSW’s best wineries, so maybe make sure someone agrees to be the designated driver, eh?