This is part of a series of posts about my trip to Australia from December 18, 2015 – January 23, 2016.
Australia is a both a continent and a country — the sixth largest country in the world, in fact. From the harsh and unforgiving desert landscape that is the country’s heart, The Outback, to the lush and ancient Daintree rainforest on the east coast, to under-the-sea adventures in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia offers a vast and varied landscape to explore. The country is also rich with unique (and sometimes terrifying) wildlife. I wanted to experience as much of Australia’s beauty as I possibly could during my holiday, though ideally not the terrifying wildlife. This was my itinerary for five weeks in Australia, and the route I took across the country:
An overview of the legs of the journey are below, but I’ve written a few posts providing more details about specific areas and experiences (you can see them here).
- Melbourne to Adelaide
I had an absolute blast in Melbourne! More on that here.
The next stop in my Oz adventure was Adelaide, and I took a two-day bus tour along the Great Ocean Road to get here. Though a friend suggested I rent a car and drive the route at my own pace, I didn’t trust myself on right-hand drive and I wanted to be able to relax and just take in the view, stress-free. The Great Ocean Road is beautiful and should be done. I was happy to see the famed 12 Apostles, but actually, I much preferred some of the other stops along the way; the coastal views were equally as beautiful at other spots, but without an overwhelming crowd. It was also fun to go koala-spotting at Kennett River, to go walking through the Great Otway forest, to hike in the Grampians, to walk down to the base of Mackenzie Falls, and to stay in Hall’s Gap, where the kangaroos outnumber the town’s people! Seriously – there are A LOT of kangaroos here. All of this was part of my two-day tour.
I booked this tour through Intrepid Travel (one of many companies offering tours along this route), but I would not recommend this company. My tour was subcontracted out to another tour operator, and while the food was basic and the one night of accommodation wasn’t great, what I really didn’t appreciate were my guide’s ignorant/offensive remarks about Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, derisive comments about my vegetarian/pescetarian lifestyle, and just his rote sharing of facts without any real passion or interest in his work. I much preferred the parts of the tour when my guide wasn’t speaking.
I only had a day and a half to explore Adelaide, but I enjoyed it. It’s a quiet kind of place and I found it easy to navigate with lots of great restaurants and cafes to enjoy. I stayed at the Adelaide YHA, which is a really nice hostel. Of note, I recommend the free walking tour of the Adelaide Botanic Garden; it’s a great way to learn about Australia’s flora and fauna and modern conservation efforts. As well, the Economic Botany Museum at the Garden was fascinating, showcasing food and plant varieties and providing insight into farming education in 1800’s Oz.
Where I ate: British India
This was by far my favourite meal in Australia. When I was there they had a ‘modern fusion’ menu, which is what I ordered from. The fish in banana leaf left me licking my lips! Service was also fantastic.
2. Adelaide to Darwin
I booked Topdeck’s Opals and Outback tour for this portion of my trip, having received a recommendation about Topdeck from a friend. I HIGHLY recommend this tour. I’ve written a review of the tour (including a number of photos) if you’re interested in more details about this route.
The Outback was, by far, my favourite portion of this trip. I love wild landscapes and raw nature and the Outback offers this in spades.
3. Darwin to Cairns
I flew on Jetstar from Darwin to Cairns. They’re a low budget airline and you can find some great deals (I was pretty lucky).
Where I stayed:
It’s a little far from the city centre, but this place has its benefits: there’s a free shuttle that will pick you up and drop you to the airport, they also offer a free shuttle service to and from the city centre (though the schedule can be limiting), the people who work here are really kind and helpful, rooms are spacious, and given that it’s out of the way it’s also cheaper than what you would find in town and attracts a more laid back crowd. I paid $27/night.
Another option if you’re looking to be in the city centre and increase your opportunity to meet people/make friends is to stay at Gilligan’s — THE party hostel in Cairns. This place has a Vegas casino vibe. I have a few friends/acquaintances who stayed here, and based on their experiences, the best bet is to book a room with fewer people (e.g. a four-person room) as these are situated on higher floors (so you’re far away from the noise of the nightclub below).
What I did:
- Great Barrier Reef liveaboard experience
I went to Cairns specifically to go diving in the Great Barrier Reef and I booked a liveaboard trip in advance after doing some research online. Because I was travelling during Australia’s summer, I was concerned about options being booked up, and I wanted to ensure I could fit everything into my tight schedule. Were I to do this again I would have simply gone to Cairns and shopped around. There are a ton of diving operators and tour companies to choose from, so I think it’s totally possible to find a good deal while there. I think it’s also wise to go armed with a few questions related to your equipment and accommodations if you’re staying overnight on the reef (e.g. is the equipment in good shape? What do the sleeping berths look like?). I was trying to find a deal and I booked my trip with a budget operator; in retrospect I would have spent another $100-$150 or so to stay a boat with air conditioning or more spacious/comfortable sleeping quarters — and definitely better equipment. I booked my trip with a boat called the Rum Runner, and most of the scuba masks available were held together by zip ties, so it was hard to find a good fit and get a good seal; the diving suits were torn, some of the tops were simply full suits with the bottom half cut off, and they didn’t have any in my size. I ended up wearing a suit that was too large which I abandoned for my last of four dives because it chafed terribly (on account of the poor fit). It was suffocatingly hot in the sleeping quarters and I saw a few little roaches on the boat, so I took my mattress up to sleep on the deck. This would have been a perfect sleeping experience — had it not started raining shortly after I drifted asleep. I was forced back below deck and did not sleep a wink as I lay sweating in my claustrophobic quarters. While the food was good and the crew and dive masters were lovely – I think it’s better (and likely safer) to go for an upgraded experience. I also found it strange that the dive masters operated solely on tips — they did not receive wages from the fees ($465 for 3 dives and I received one free). There were 16 guests and five crew on the boat.
The reef itself was beautiful and my favourite dive was the last one — I felt like the little mermaid and had the song “Under the Sea” stuck in my head the whole time! I saw two reef sharks, a sea turtle, two lobsters, giant clams, and many, many fish and schools of fish – it was great! Our dives were in the Thetford Reef. The water was clearer in some areas than others and the coral better in some areas than others. I’d definitely go back to the Reef and would love to go diving in some other locations.
- Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation day trip
I highly recommend going up to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. It’s a beautiful drive, and you can get up and close and personal with kangaroos, wallabies and beautiful birds at a wildlife park on the way. The Daintree is also the home of the endangered, beautiful (and dangerous) cassowary, and while we didn’t see any along our route (they typically dwell deep in the forest), it was cool to see the road signs and know were were in their country. I went on a day trip with Jungle Tours and had a fantastic guide who was clearly passionate about nature and the area, happily answering and encouraging our questions during our forest walk and our drives. When we got back into town at the end of the tour, I asked to be dropped off at the city centre. A large fruit bat colony roosts in the trees at the centre of town and were just taking off for the night when we arrived. It was quite the scene to watch! Beware of bat poop!
Where I ate: Ochre Restaurant
This was my most memorable meal in Cairns, and one of the most memorable I had in Australia — purely because it was “Australian” food. I had already been in Australia for a few weeks at this point, but I wasn’t clear on what Australian food really was or could be outside of barramundi sandwiches and barbecued wild meats (and I don’t eat meat, so kangaroo, emu and camel were off the table for me). Ochre is focused on local and native Australian ingredients so it was great to sample food that wasn’t anything I could get at home (I once again had barramundi, but this time fried with a number of sauces and local herbs accompanying it).
4. Cairns to Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast
I flew from Cairns to Brisbane on account of limited time. Had I had another week I would have definitely done a Whitsundays sailing trip, but I guess I’ll cover this on a future trip to Oz, along with exploring Western Australia and Tasmania.
This was a really special part of my Australian experience. I had a family reunion in Brissy with an uncle I hadn’t seen in seven years, and I met my 11-year-old cousin for the first time. I hadn’t planned for this reunion prior to coming to Oz given that our schedules didn’t seem to be aligning, but then like magic, my uncle’s vacation time was approved and him and my cousin flew over to Brisbane to meet me for a family-friendly adventure! I am eternally grateful to my uncle for these few days together. I definitely would have not been able to afford the places we stayed at or the restaurants we ate at and I don’t think I would have seen or done as much were I reliant on buses or tours. With my uncle as the driver and my cousin and I navigating (he was far better than I was), we roadtripped up the Sunshine Coast to Noosa and then down to the Gold Coast, singing along to Adele’s Hello and Zara Larsson’s Lush Life and even some soca (because we’re Trinis) along the way! It was really special bonding time, and was a wonderful treat on the trip.
What we did:
We had a great walk through Brisbane at night, and ended up at the wheel (you can’t miss it). It offers a great view of the city, and I just like ferris wheels.
This was actually my first visit to a planetarium. We went because my little cousin wanted to go, AND I’M GLAD WE DID. We watched a pretty cool film called Cosmic Collisions, projected into a dome representing the sky. At the end of the film we had a “tour” of the night sky in Brisbane, pointing out where we’d see the moon that night, and the stars and constellations we could see.
This is what I was most excited about for the east coast portion of my trip (besides the Reef)–the opportunity to hold (and hug) a koala! You can actually only hold a koala in the state of Queensland; in other states you’re only allowed to stand nearby (I’m not sure why). While I could have done this as part of my visit to a wildlife park in Port Douglas (outside of Cairns) I wanted to do it here, having read about this place during my trip research. All I can say is that holding a koala lives up to the hype — THEY ARE ADORABLE AND THIS WAS A DREAM COME TRUE AND I WISH I COULD HUG KOALAS ALL THE TIME BECAUSE THEY MAKE ME SO JOYFUL!!! I became an eight-year-old girl again in this moment and sometimes I think about this experience and it brings a smile to my heart. Koalas are so special. This little guy’s name was Sprocket and he smelled pretty good and was so soft and delightful. A word of advice if you’re having your photo taken — you get one shot by the professional photographer BUT if you have a friend there, they’re allowed to snap pics on your phone/camera. Do this if you can…the flash was excessive on the professional shot and I came out look like a hot, sweaty mess…not the most flattering of pics, especially compared to the pic snapped on my iPhone (which is the one I’ve included below).
Unfortunately you don’t get to hold the koala very long (they put one in your arms, snap a pic and then onto the next one) so soak in as much of the glory as you can.
I was happy to visit Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, having been a fan of the Crocodile Hunter. What was even more special about this experience was that the Irwin family was there the day we went (my clever uncle called in advance) so we got to see Bindi and Robert and their mom feed some crocs and put on a show! We then spent the rest of the day exploring the zoo and checking out the different kinds of wildlife. It’s a massive place and you will need a full day here. Fun fact (about me): after koalas, echidnas are my second favourite Australian animal.
This made for a nice drive and lovely view. There’s a cute town at the top of the mountain, complete with little restaurants and shops, and the tourist office guy was very friendly and helpful. Wild koalas live along the route, but unfortunately I didn’t catch a glimpse of any.
Some of the beaches I visited on the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast included Mooloolaba, Caloundra, Coolum, Noosa and Surfers Paradise. Noosa was my favourite beach — there’s a section that’s calm and like a bathtub, and another that’s great for surfing. We took a family surf lesson with Merrick’s Surf School which was great fun, and we all managed to stand up on our boards! Be sure to arrange for photos in advance with Merrick’s (they didn’t have a photographer when we were there, so couldn’t get shots of us on our boards) or bring your GoPro and make sure you have a secure wristband or two (very easy to lose your camera).
Surfers Paradise is a lively tourist city with skyscrapers and a long, windblown beach. We went up to the Q1 Skypoint Observation deck, a haunted house, the Infinity attraction (my cousin wanted to do this and I was quite skeptical, but it was more fun than I thought it would be) and the Hard Rock Cafe. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this place on my own but it was nice to explore for a day and a half, and to do the tourist activities with my family.
5. Byron Bay
I left my family in Surfers Paradise, sad to leave them, but excited to continue on to Australia’s most easterly point: Byron Bay. I only had a day-and-a-half here so not too much time, but in this time I hung out at the beach, took a walk up to the famed lighthouse — the most easterly point of the Australian mainland — and best of all, I went skydiving for the first time! If you can fit this into your budget, I say go for it! The view is SPECTACULAR and the tandem people you jump with are very cool (my guy was named Joe and he was the best). I stayed at the Byron Bay YHA, which was well-located.
Sydney was the final leg of my journey. I took an overnight Greyhound bus from Byron Bay which was not as restful as I hoped it would be (bring layers and dress in warm clothes because the AC can get VERY cold), but it was far more affordable than the flights at the time I looked. I was really lucky that one of the friends I made in Byron — actually one of my roommates at the YHA — happened to be on the same bus as I was on! It was great because she’d been to Sydney before, so I had a great tour guide in her! For more on highlights of the starting and ending points of my trip (Melbourne and Sydney), you may want to read this post.
And that was how I spent five weeks in Oz! I covered a lot of ground on this trip (literally), but there is still so much I would love to see and explore. I can’t wait to go back to Australia!