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Help me plan a three-week trip to Australia!
June 16, 2014 7:15 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I have our plane tickets booked, but not a lot else planned and I'm starting to panic slightly. We've scheduled 20 days on the ground, from the end of August to the beginning of September.

I've searched around for similar questions, but I feel like we're working with more time than others, so we can afford a little more time spent in transit.

We have a rough outline--we're flying in and out of Sydney, and would like to visit Melbourne (driving the Great Ocean Road), Cairns, and Tasmania, along with a side trip to New Zealand.

I've been reading through my guidebooks, but it gets overwhelming quickly and I start to worry I'll miss out on something awesome.

Our US trips usually revolve around visiting National Parks, eating good (but not necessarily expensive or fancy) food, beer more than wine, museums or learning something new, and a break at some point to sit around a pool/on a beach and relax. I also love zoos and aquariums. We live in Orlando, so we prefer to avoid large groups of tourists unless something is completely worth it.

I realize that flying over to New Zealand will eat up a chunk of time, but we don't expect to have another chance to visit this part of the world again anytime soon. It seems like you have to choose one island or the other, so please offer your recommendations!

I'm excited about visiting the Great Barrier Reef, but my husband is hasn't gone diving in a long time and I have zero experience. I'd love to hear your recommendations for snorkling-type trips. Our goal is to stay put for a few days and relax; so far we're looking at staying Cairns, but I'm not sure if there's a better option.

So basically, I need confirmation that we've chosen the right places to visit, help deciding how much time to spend in each place, how to be most efficient traveling place to place, and a few can't miss items.

Thank you so much!
posted by cndelia to Travel & Transportation around Gympie, Australia (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I did the Sydney-->Cairns road trip a couple years back.

Cairns is the staging area for the Barrier Reef but is not super-awesome otherwise. I'd consider staying an hour or so north in Port Douglas, instead -- much more relaxing.

On the way up, definitely make a stop in Byron Bay -- a gorgeous surfing mecca, worth it to just walk across the beach and watch the surfers for a while. I also really enjoyed a day and a half or so in Hervey Bay, which is known for whale-watching at certain times of the year, but otherwise is just a lovely place to spend a little bit of time.

Don't undervalue Sydney, either -- it's a wonderful, world-class metropolis, one of the best waterfront cities there is. There are some fantastic beaches too. Spend at least a few days there eating and drinking and having a good time. Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge -- super-touristy but really fun.

I was advised to skip Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

One other note: I spent three weeks just driving from Sydney to Cairns and then flying back to Sydney (with three or four days in Sydney on the front end and one day on the back end). I did not make the drive to Melbourne and think the trip would have been too rushed if I had tried.

Have fun!
posted by eugenen at 7:23 AM on June 16


Just some notes from an Aussie now living in the US.

Be aware of driving distances and times. Yes the US is big, but Australia has a lot less people so a lot larger gaps of nothingness between towns and also does not really have the huge tollways and vast interstate highways system that the US does, a lot of time you will be travelling on two lane roads that run through towns and you will be sharing them with large trucks and if you go far enough out road trains (semis pulling 2 or 3 or so full sized trailers behind them).

Cairns is so out the way of everything else you want to visit, you are looking at a 24 to 29 hour drive (1,500 miles), of course if you are flying that's a lot easier but I'd also most likely go to Port Douglas if I was going to fly up. Having said that if you've been to Florida, the climate and feel of the Gold Coast & parts of further north feel very similar and if you are coming from Orlando it probably isn't going to feel super exotic to you. There is the Great Barrier Reef which is mind blowingly beautiful though and snorkelling the reef is well worth it. It is hard to access yourself unless you are staying on an island as you have to go out on a boat to get to the "best" bits you will most likely be in a huge group of people. If I were to go to Queensland again I'd stay on one of the islands on the Whitsundays where you can pretty much snorkel off of the beaches, they can be a bit Resorty but if you are looking for a few days of sun & sea that is the way I would go. I am boringly middle aged however and the Cairns, Port Douglas are full of younger people out to party and have fun for the most part so if that's your scene you will probably have a ball there.

If you go along the Great Ocean Road, which I recommend it is spectacular, there are some good wineries along the way. I might suggest if you are going that far towards South Australia you consider a visit to Kangaroo Island, you are looking at maybe a 9-12 hour drive from Melborne depending on how focused you are to get there. It is past some pretty countryside to drive through and if you like wines then an overnight stay in the Barossa Valley and a visit to wineries & restaurants there is definitely in order. Kangaroo Island is beautiful and well worth the trip.

If you like food and coffee culture then Melbourne is great, and Adelaide is a pretty little city and a bit of a smaller version of Melbourne food and coffee wise, though don't tell them I said that. If you are Food& wine & museum type then Sydney & Melbourne will be right up your alley. As eugenen said don't underestimate Sydney it is a stunningly beautiful city and well worth a few days of being a tourist in, and if you love zoos then you'll love Taronga Park Zoo, get the ferry over and you can walk around a zoo with views of the harbor, or even stay the night in the zoo, which is on my bucket list.

Air New Zealand does flights from the US to Australia with stop overs in NZ. Their prices are usually really good and the planes comfy and it really only adds a few hours to the total fly time. You could see some of the highlights of NZ in a few days, while it is a small country remember it too doesn't have the super fast roads you are used to so allow time to get place to place.
posted by wwax at 8:43 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


So you have 5 places to visit and 20 days. I think it will be a little rushed, but certainly doable. I wouldn't cross anything off your list because they are all places worth seeing. Fly the longer distances to cut down on transit time.

I did a snorkeling trip on the Great Barrier Reef. Can't remember the name of the company, but there are a number of them that do daily tours. We booked on arrival, maybe a day in advance. It was fantastic, and I don't feel like I missed out on anything by snorkeling rather than diving. Seconding staying in Port Douglas rather than Cairns. You could also spend a day at the Daintree Rainforest. I would be tempted to do this at the end of the trip so you can enjoy your last day or two relaxing in the warm weather.

A few days in Sydney is good to do the main sights - Bondi, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Botanic Gardens, maybe a trip to the Blue Mountains.

The Great Ocean Road is going to take up the better part of two days, but it's worth seeing. Maybe spend a day or two in Melbourne - there are good museums, great food, the zoo is popular too. You could get the Spirit of Tasmania ferry overnight to Tasmania, then you could rent a car and drive through Launceston and Hobart. There are historic sights and good national parks in Tasmania, it will be chilly but very pretty.

Your best bet for New Zealand would be to pick a city and spend a few days exploring the surrounds. I've only been to the North Island, and it was great, but the south island is thought to be more scenic. Queenstown would be my choice.

Enjoy the trip!
posted by Shal at 9:06 AM on June 16


If you can, Kings Canyon and Uluru are both worth getting to. 'Behold, the majesty' sort of stuff.

Melbourne is the coolest, greatest city. If you like good food, coffee and neato bars and restaurants, then you're in for a treat.

Great Ocean road is lovely drive that you can do in a day.

Get somewhere quiet and dark on a clear night at least once to have your brain re-wired by the beauty of the stars down there.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 10:01 AM on June 16


Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, the Great Ocean Road, the Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand in twenty days sounds breakneck, and I think you're going to end up spending a lot more time travelling than you realise. Everything is further apart in Australia, and driving can be tiring for the reasons wwax mentions above.

So just a suggestion from the cheap seats: I would consider dropping at least one of your ideas.

Some quick thoughts on your options.

The Great Barrier Reef
The Reef is in the opposite direction from the rest of your trip -- everything else is south of Sydney and can be organised in a logical progression. I might consider doing something like this: Sydney - Melbourne - Great Ocean Road - Tasmania - New Zealand - Sydney.

Alternatively, if you fly up to see the Reef, why not visit Uluru as well? You could then break your trip into two arcs: the Southern part (Sydney - Melbourne - Great Ocean Road - Tasmania - New Zealand) and the Northern part (Cairns - Great Barrier Reef - Uluru). Though I would definitely drop at least one of those and probably two if you add Uluru in.

Melbourne
Melbourne's a great hangout city, but it's not so different from Sydney that you need to spend a long time in both. Unless you're really into the Arts (and it sounds like you're not), I think you could just spend a night there before you head out for the Great Ocean Road.

Tasmania and New Zealand
For somebody who likes National Parks, I think one of Tasmania or New Zealand plus Uluru is going to make for the most satisfying trip, as Tasmania and New Zealand's environments are more alike than different. (Which is not to say there's not unique and spectacular places in both.) All other things being equal, I'd probably pick New Zealand, but you need to weigh that up against the fact that you'll be right near Tasmania already.

Sydney
Sydney's generally the best city in Australia for tourists, but you could consider skipping through to Melbourne if it seems more your scene. Sydney also has Australia's best zoo (Taronga) and best aquarium (Sydney Aquarium).
posted by Georgina at 11:00 AM on June 16


We spent three weeks in Australia in late 2012. Here's what we did (caveat: we're non-drivers):

Sydney & surroundings:
We flew in and out from Sydney so had a few days here at either end of the holiday.
- First thing we did after checking in at the hotel was to sit outside with a gin and tonic and a snack at the Opera Bar. Opera House on one side of you, bridge on the other, perfect "wow, we're actually in Australia!" feeling.
- We did the Harbour Bridge Climb. Expensive, but amazing if that sort of thing appeals to you.
- Got the ferry over to Manly (it crosses Sydney Harbour, with gorgeous views), played around in the sea at Manly beach, and walked a little way along the Manly Scenic Walkway which was beautiful and a lot quieter than Manly itself
- Visited the Aquarium - it has dugongs!
- (On the advice of a friend from Sydney) got a pie at Harry's Pies de Wheels, then walked back to our hotel through the Botanical Gardens
- We got the train up to the Blue Mountains, stayed in Blackheath for a night, then travelled back to Sydney via train and then the Parramatta Ferry.

We flew out to Alice Springs and did a 3-day outback tour with Wayoutback, but it doesn't sound like there's much time in your schedule for yet another destination!

We stayed with friends in Melbourne so saw more of the suburbs than the city centre. Our friends took us for a day trip along the Great Ocean Road, which was stunning - we paddled in the sea at Loch Ard Gorge, and stopped for lunch at Port Campbell.
- We also visited the Healesville Sanctuary, a zoo with just Australian fauna.
- My mother recommends the art tours.

Port Douglas & surroundings (like you everyone too us to go there instead of Cairns, and it was the right decision)
- if you're going self-catering I really recommend the Martinique - great location and super-helpful owners re: local recommendations
- there are lots (and lots and loooooots) of possibilities for reef tours, all slightly different in terms of what you're getting. We booked a Silversonic tour, which took you to three different sites for snorkelling/scuba; there are others that take you out to stationary pontoons where the swimming is a bit more contained. We went for this one as snorkelers because it maximised time in the water from the options we looked at.
- we went on the Lady Douglas river cruise which was unexpectedly wonderful - gorgeous leisurely scenic river tour, with bonus crocodile-spotting, for surprisingly little money (especially compared to the reef!)
- we did a small-group tour into the Daintree rainforest with Tony's Tropical Tours - not cheap but great
- brunch of omelette and freshly squeezed orange juice at Cafe Ecco on Macrossan Street, much recommended.
posted by Catseye at 11:17 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Just chiming in as Aussie and aquarium aficionado; Melbourne aquarium is far far superior to Sydney's. It is bigger, less crowded, has much better exhibits with a far greater focus on Australian environments and species. Sydney aquarium is nothing special imho and very poorly laid out. The relentless attempts to hit you up for additional cash also weary me. I've been to a lot of aquariums; Melbourne is internationally competitive imho, Sydney just average and it gets very very crowded.
posted by smoke at 3:46 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


The best thing in Tasmania is MONA. It's in a stunning location and you can get a ferry there.
posted by Wantok at 7:46 PM on June 16


Seconding those who say that Australia is deceptively big. With your ambitious itinerary, getting between all the places you have in mind will take much of you time. Sure it's an hour and a half flight time between Sydney and Melbourne for example but you still have to get the Sydney airport (not to bad from downtown), check in and do the usual security and baggage stuff then do it in reverse in Melbourne (where the airport is much further from downtown and has no rapid transit link) so an hour and a half flight becomes something more like an entire day of travel.
Tasmania appears compact but the roads are narrow, winding and slow in many places.
MONA in Hobart is a gem.
Highly recommend the Manly ferry not just for the destination but to experience Sydney harbour. Bondi IMO is perhaps the most over-rated place in Australia and it can be time-consuming to get to.
Check out overnight trains which can provide both accommodation and transportation.
I'd be tempted to pare down the itinerary a bit and perhaps save New Zealand for a future trip.
posted by islander at 8:33 PM on June 16


Your best bet for New Zealand would be to pick a city and spend a few days exploring the surrounds. I've only been to the North Island, and it was great, but the south island is thought to be more scenic. Queenstown would be my choice.
Queenstown is an overpriced tourist trap [albeit in a scenic location], so it depends if that's your thing or not.

You could easily spend 20 days in NZ alone, so if you visit, you'll have to pick and choose carefully. You could travel from Queenstown to Milford sound, but it's a long way, and everyone does that.

My pick would be to travel to Te Anau and take one of the Doubtful sound trips.

Keep in mind that August is winter in NZ [Sept 1st is first day of spring], so choose your clothing accordingly.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:54 PM on June 16


Lots of good advice above.

I just wanted to say that if "a break at some point to sit around a pool/on a beach and relax" means actually swimming and not wearing many clothes you should be north of the NSW/QLD border, probably up north in the Cairns/Port Douglas bit of QLD, although many southern-Australian residents (and not to mention visitors from cooler-climes in Europe and North America) find the winter/spring temperatures of southern QLD and NSW 'summery' enough to enjoy beach-type fun.

(Not sure why you have Gympie specified in the post notes).

On zoos and Aquariums... if you are interested in zoos for zoo's sake then yes, Taronga is amazing. If you are mainly interested in seeing Australian fauna you can do this at many smaller zoos, wildlife parks and 'wildlife sanctuaries' all over.
posted by evil_esto at 2:47 AM on June 17


As others have said, Australia's a big place and I think you should focus your itinerary. Melbourne and Tasmania will be coolish-to-cold at that time of year. You're not going to want to swim in either place, and probably not in Sydney, either. You'll get away with it in Queensland. I like the Great Ocean Road, but it's a long drive on a narrow road. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially if you're not used to driving on the left. If you want a long drive, why not drive up north from Sydney, along the coast? It's quite pleasant and you pass through a lot of beautiful places.

There are great National parks all over Australia. The Blue Mountains are close to Sydney, and you could see the Three Sisters and the Jenolan Caves. Then drive up north via the Pacific Highway, stopping in (say) the Myall Lakes National Park. You could camp there, or stay in this lighthouse.

Continue up the coast to Byron Bay, which has lots of nice places to stay, and take a side trip to Nimbin, which is very hippyish and famed for its agricultural products. But be careful driving afterwards.

Next day, drive through Brisbane (oh yes) to Bundaberg. It has nice beaches and a rum distillery, so you can rum while you drink on the rum. Leave your rented car at Bundaberg Airport, and take a quick flight to Lady Elliot Island, at the southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef. You can book accommodation there, or just make it a day trip.

You say that you want to go to Cairns; I don't think you'll find it as exciting as other places, but you can either continue your road trip or drive back down to Brisbane and fly there. Alternatively or additionally, you can fly to Ayers Rock (Uluru). I believe there are direct flights to Uluru from Cairns, which is one of the few reasons for going there IMO. From Uluru you can fly to Melbourne, then back to Sydney for your return flight.

I think this itinerary will easily fill twenty days, especially if you are happy spending a day at each stop. Let me know if you want other suggestions, though.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:05 AM on June 17


Thank you all so much for your suggestions! I feel like I have a much better grasp on my options...now I just need to stop procrastinating and get my itinerary settled :)
posted by cndelia at 3:08 PM on June 18


As others have said, Cairns itself isn't great. We stayed in Palm Cove, which is a quaint little town. We arranged a snorkeling/diving excursion through our hotel, and they picked us up. The tour offered "beginner scuba", which didn't require previous certification and was only a little more expensive ($10?). I did that and it was great, my wife gave it a try but wasn't comfortable (the wash-out rate seemed about 50%). It sounds like this is something you could try. If your husband's a diver he'll kick himself for being that close to the GBR and not getting in.

Melbourne and Sydney are both great cities in their own ways, make sure you have enough time there. The ocean drive is beautiful, make sure you leave early in the day so you have enough time. There's wine tasting to the East.
posted by Horselover Fat at 9:27 AM on June 27


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