You don’t want to go all that way and get it wrong. No danger of that with our ultimate beginner’s guide to the best of Oz in three weeks.
It’s time to start being nice to your boss – if you’re off down under, a fortnight isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need fully three weeks to tick off that rock and the reef, see both Sydney and Melbourne, and leave enough time to hit the beach, ride the waves and throw another shrimp on the barbie.
The sun-drenched, laid-back Aussie lifestyle is an unmissable attraction in itself. This hop around the country will also get you cruising the world’s largest natural harbour. You’ll spot crocs in the tropics and koalas up gumtrees, take in mountains and winelands, and get a taste of the outback. Distances in Australia are head-spinningly huge (it’s at least a three-day drive from Sydney to Uluru), so be prepared for some internal flights – by far the quickest way to get around, and affordable, too. No need for high heels and jackets for dinner. Pack light: this is a thongs (flip-flops) and sunhat kinda trip.
Days 1-3: Sydney
You’ve been on a plane for (at least) the past 22 hours, but, even though you might not feel at your freshest, you won’t want to wait to clap eyes on that harbour. Muster the energy to get yourself to Circular Quay and the Opera House, where a glass of bubbles on the harbour wall is obligatory (sydneyoperahouse.com). Snap your first selfie, raising that glass with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a bright blue sky behind you. Smile. You’ve arrived.
No Sydneysider would hang around this part of town for dinner, so follow their lead to Chippendale, the latest hotspot, for a jet-lag-friendly light and laid-back dinner on Spice Alley, a lane of hawker-style cafes with communal tables. Then sleep, if you can. The Old Clare has hip bedrooms and a rooftop pool in the old brewery opposite (doubles from 160; theoldclarehotel.com.au).
Keep up the fight against jet lag by hitting the surf and getting salt in your hair. Bondi Beach is Sydney’s flashiest and most famous stretch of sand, where Let’s Go Surfing are confident they’ll get you on your feet in two hours ( 56;letsgosurfing.com.au).
Celebrate catching your first waves with a seafood binge at North Bondi Fish (mains from 16; northbondifish.com.au), then spend a lazy afternoon strolling along the coast on the well-marked path to Bronte Beach, just over a mile south. Stop for a swim and a sunbathe at Tamarama Beach, halfway along and with a fraction of Bondi’s crowds.
Tonight, it’s time to sample the Sydney party scene. Newtown is the hippest spot. Start with a mod Oz (modern Australian) dinner at Bloodwood (dishes from 10; bloodwoodnewtown.com) before potent cocktails at Earl’s Juke Joint, housed in an old butcher’s shop on King Street. Further along the same street, you’ll find Doris and Beryl’s Bridge Club & Tea House, with craft beers and tea-inspired cocktails such as Fifty Shades of Earl – a blend of earl grey and bourbon.
It’s back to the harbour on day three, for the ferry to Watsons Bay. This is about the best-value cruise we can think of, offering 20 minutes of Opera House and Harbour Bridge views for just 3.60. On arrival in the exclusive suburb, walk up to the viewpoint on top of the harbour’s South Head for stirring views across the Tasman Sea, then grab a table at the Beach Club at Watsons Bay Hotel for fish and chips, looking back towards the city skyline. Everyone ends up staying longer than they meant to (mains from 13; watsonsbayhotel.com.au).
End your stay in Sydney on a high by taking the BridgeClimb to the top of the Harbour Bridge, 440ft above sea level. You’ll peer down from the catwalk to the road between the steel struts beneath your feet, before edging out along the outer arch for unbeatable views of the harbour. If you can, book the twilight slot (from 146; bridgeclimb.com).
Day 4: Hunter Valley
Australia is one of the world’s greatest wine producers, and some of the best vintages come from the Hunter Valley, two hours from Sydney. Pick up your hire car this morning and you’ll be at the Esca Bimbadgen wine estate in time for lunch with a valley view (two courses from 35pp;bimbadgen.com.au).
Bagsy not being the designated driver for an afternoon of wine tasting. Most wineries here offer free tastings, so why not try the Wyndham Estate, Tulloch and anywhere else that catches your eye en route to Pepper Tree, which has snappy, fresh semillon you’ll want to take away with you? Bottles start at 11 (peppertreewines.com.au). As a bonus – hurrah for the designated driver – it’s within walking distance of the Convent boutique hotel (doubles from 178, B&B; theconventhuntervalley.com.au).
Day 5: Blue Mountains
The rugged, eucalyptus-shrouded Blue Mountains are an easy win – it’s bona fide bush in these parts, but you won’t have to drive for days, as they’re only three hours from the Hunter Valley. Take a dip at Jellybean Pool, see waterfalls on the mile-long Valley of the Waters walk and leave the Three Sisters sandstone stacks – the Unesco World Heritage Site’s most prized sight – until late afternoon, when the crowds have dispersed. Staying overnight also means stargazing: the Milky Way is often visible from Katoomba airfield. Nearby, the Carrington hotel is a landmark 19th-century building known as the Grand Old Lady of the Mountains, with stained-glass windows and colonial-style rooms (doubles from 150, B&B; thecarrington.com.au).
Days 6-9: Great Barrier Reef
You’ve seen the Attenborough docs and now you want to swim with the fishes. Your best bet is Hamilton Island, which has direct flights from Sydney and an easy resort-style way of doing things, which means you can book your accommodation, tours and activities all in one place. Staying on the island is pricy, with the Palm Bungalows offering the best value. They have kitchenettes, so you can at least fix your own breakfasts and lunches (from 224, sleeping two; hamiltonisland.com.au).
It’s worth the splurge to see the reef from above – and put it into full perspective. A 60-minute aeroplane flight ( 176pp) will take you over the white swirl of Whitehaven Beach and the proposal favourite Heart Reef, which is shaped like… well, you’ve guessed it.
Most boat trips to the reef cram ’em in, but on Cruise Whitsundays’ Reefsleep, you’ll get to stay on Hardy Reef overnight, on the pontoon, in a swag (tent meets sleeping bag), with just eight of your new best friends. This exclusive snorkel is worth every penny ( 260pp; cruisewhitsundays.com).
Days 10–13: Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation
Next, the humidity rises a little, on a trip to the tropics. Fly north from Hamilton Island to Cairns today and pick up another car to reach the more authentic town of Port Douglas, where Palm Villas has pleasant, affordable apartments within walking distance of Four Mile Beach, a white-sand wilderness stroked by the Coral Sea and unencumbered by development of any kind for its entire length (apartments from 76; palmvillas.com.au).
There are two must-do rainforest day trips here, one taking the Kuranda scenic railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway cable car to get a parrot’s-eye view of palms and giant ferns (from 64pp; skyrail.com.au), and the other driving up through the tropical rainforest of Daintree National Park to the emerald, teardrop-shaped headland of Cape Tribulation. The Dubuji Boardwalk runs through the mangroves to the beach, and you may see crocs and cassowaries (huge flightless birds with bright-blue heads and cherry-red wattles) along the way.
Allow yourself a beach day in Port Douglas – you’ve earned it. Stroll along those endless sands or, if you’re still full of beans, take a lesson in stand-up paddleboarding ( 29pp; windswell.com.au).
Days 14 and 15: Uluru
Wave goodbye to the east coast; it’s time to feel the burn of the outback. Slather on the sunscreen during your flight from Cairns to Connellan airport, where the Ayers Rock Resort will pick you up. The most affordable of its digs is the Outback Pioneer Lodge (doubles from 132; ayersrockresort.com.au), but if you want a view of the rock from your room, you’ll need to book the Desert Gardens Hotel (doubles from 226; as before).
Everything at Uluru happens early and late – the midday heat is just too fierce. You’ll have booked all your tours in advance through the resort’s website, so you can flop by the pool (both of the hotels above have one) on your first afternoon. Later, head to the Field of Light, an art installation that oscillates multicoloured light waves across an area the size of four football pitches ( 20pp), then set the alarm for an early start for the guided trek around the base of the rock itself ( 85pp). The local Aboriginal community requests that you don’t climb it, so don’t; you’ll see more of its caves and rock art from the base track anyway.
No trip to Uluru would be complete without seeing it light up rose and violet at sunset. The Sounds of Silence dinner combines sparkling-wine sundowners with a bush-tucker dinner and a stargazing tour of the night sky ( 115pp; book through the resort).
Days 16 and 17: Melbourne
You probably didn’t come to Australia for the museums, but your next stop, Melbourne, a three-hour flight from Uluru, is the country’s cultural capital (sorry, Sydney). Keep a few hours spare for the Immigration Museum. Housed in the Old Customs House, it tells the tale of how this multicultural continent came to be, with plenty of salty sea stories ( 8pp; museumvictoria.com.au).
You should also check out the National Gallery of Victoria, the largest arts museum in Australia, with a dizzying range of Australian art – indigenous, colonial and contemporary (free; ngv.vic.gov.au). Melbourne is the country’s coffee capital, too: the cafes of the CBD’s streets compete to sell the most hipster hot beverages possible. Try a small batch filter at Patricia to see what the fuss is about ( 2; patriciacoffee.com.au).
Don’t miss shopping at the vast and locally loved open-air Queen Victoria Market. You’ll find everything from Melbourne-made fashions to artisan cheeses (qvm.com.au). Be sure to check out Siglo, the city’s best rooftop bar, which has a lengthy European wine list and a broad terrace overlooking Parliament House. It sits atop one of the city’s coolest dinner spots, the European, so make a night of it, starting downstairs with local seafood or Aussie beef in the bistro-style restaurant, then heading upstairs for a nightcap or two (mains from 17; theeuropean.com.au).
Base yourself at the ultra-cool Ovolo Laneways hotel, where the decor is inspired by local street art (doubles from 130, B&B; ovolohotels.com). Then check out the real thing as you go in search of cutting-edge cocktail bars. You won’t have to wander far. Our current favourites include the jazz and whisky den EDV (cocktails from 11; eaudevie.com.au), the Japanese cocktail and wine bar Hihou (cocktails from 12; hihou.com.au) and the cosy, lamp-lit Murmur (cocktails from 11;murmur.com.au).
Days 18-21: Great Ocean Road
Congratulations. You’re now fully qualified to enter into the Sydney v Melbourne debate. That means it’s time to take on another argument: is the Great Ocean Road the world’s most impressive coastal drive?
With its swooping switchbacks and shipwrecking rocky coastline, it’s certainly up there, though to get the best out of it, you’ll want to take the A1 motorway first, heading straight for the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, an extinct volcanic crater and guaranteed koala-sighting spot. Your base is in nearby Warrnambool, at the traditional Hotel Warrnambool, which offers a “boutique pub stay experience” and has a popular beer garden with the occasional band (doubles from 65, B&B; hotelwarrnambool.com.au). From there able to explore the local area. As expected, there are hundreds of friendly locals out enjoying some time in the sun as you walk down the different streets. You pop into the cutest cafe Warrnambool has to offer and order some lunch. You then start thinking about the next leg of your journey.
You’re now 160 miles from Melbourne and ready to hit the Great Ocean Road the way few others do: driving east, and waving at those stuck in the traffic going the other way. Photo-opportunity stops at the offshore London Arch and the Twelve Apostles rock stacks are obligatory, as is a swim at the cliff-flanked inlet of Loch Ard Gorge.
You’re keeping the pace slow to soak it all up, and will spend the night at the fishing town-meets-artist’s colony of Apollo Bay. Here, the Sandpiper Motel has bright rooms with balconies from 80 (sandpiper.net.au). Eat fresh fish caught in those waters you’ve been staring at all day at La Bimba (mains from 21; labimba.com.au).
Your last full day down under is spent in the gloriously untouched Great Otway National Park, where you can walk through fern gullies at Maits Rest and look out for whales at the Cape Otway Lighthouse.
Get yourself down to surf- and cafe-obsessed Lorne in time to walk through the blue gum forest and on to Erskine Falls. Then head back to the sandy beach to gorge on fish and chips before retiring to your sea-view room at the Grand Pacific Hotel (doubles from 77; grandpacific.com.au).
Don’t despair next morning – your trip isn’t over just yet. The airport run back to Melbourne takes a mere two hours, which means that there’s still time to capture a selfie with a grazing kangaroo at Anglesea Golf Club and – if you don’t mind taking the Aussie sea salt home with you – have a dip in the waves at the surfing hotspot of Torquay before catching your evening flight home.
Save for next time
The Penguin Parade at Phillip Island; Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu National Park; driving the Gibb River Road across the Kimberley; swimming with whale sharks and humpback whales at Ningaloo Reef.
When to go
Late spring (October and November) and early autumn (March and April) are best, with bearable temperatures at Uluru and warm weather elsewhere. Avoid late December and January, the Aussie summer school holidays.
Fly from the UK into Sydney and out of Melbourne with airlines including BA, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qantas, Qatar and Singapore Airlines; from 870 return. For internal flights, Jetstar is usually the cheapest, but Qantas has the most extensive network. Expect to pay 80 for a flight from Sydney to Hamilton Island with Jetstar, and from 190 for Cairns to Ayers Rock with Qantas. Holiday Extras (holidayextras.co.uk) can sort out car hire for the above itinerary for about 200; picking up and dropping off cars at Aussie airports is a doddle.
Trailfinders can tailor-make a package similar to the above from 2,449pp,
including all flights, hotels and car hire (020 7368 1200, trailfinders.com). Or try Austravel, which has 19 nights for 2,329pp (0800 159 6381, austravel.com).