Australia visit in August 2018
November 26, 2017 1:48 PM   Subscribe

My family (two adults, one 13-year-old boy) are planning a vacation to Australia the last two weeks of August in 2018. It's a big country with a lot of possibilities, but at the moment we're thinking of doing a Sydney-Uluru-Darwin-Cairns-Sydney loop. Any thoughts and suggestions welcome.

This is a pretty generic questions that covers lots of options, so any advice is welcome: where to stay, where to visit, things to do, etc.

We’re into the general tourist highlights - Sights, culture, nature, wildlife, not-too-strenuous hiking. But things that are off the beaten track can be good too.

Places to stay: Hotels, resorts, B&Bs, AirBnB are fine with us. Ideally under $200 a day. No basic camping, but we’d be okay with higher-end camping.

Tours: We don't want to do a tour for the entire trip, but would consider it for some parts (Uluru is likely).

Should we do both Uluru and Alice Springs? (And since there’s 250 miles between them, we’d prefer not to backtrack, so we could fly into one and out of the other).

Car rental: Obviously, we’ll be flying between major locations, but we’d consider renting cars, especially in Darwin and Cairns.

We plan to end the trip in the Cairns area as it is the only town in our planned loop that has a flight that leaves early enough to catch our 1:30pm flight back to the States from Sydney, without having to spend an extra night in Sydney. Checking out the Great Barrier Reef and ending the trip at a low-key and relaxing beach resort near Cairns is something we’re probably looking for.

Thanks for any advice and suggestions.
posted by ShooBoo to Travel & Transportation around Australia (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely see the Reef, before it's gone (cry). I really liked the Blue Mountains, out of Sydney. Not sure Alice Springs has much to offer, unless there's something you'd really like to see I'd skip it.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:06 PM on November 26, 2017

Best answer: I'm from Melbourne but I've visited the places you mention apart from Darwin. I'll start by querying the Darwin visit... Are you going to use it as a base to see some national parks? If not I wouldn't bother going unless you have a special interest. It's not a big place and it's not considered a tourist attraction in and of itself. I would also skip Alice Springs. Im sure you can find things to do but considering you're skipping all of Vic, SA and WA, I think it's not a priority. I found Alice Springs to be small and pretty depressing. There is a lot of poverty and racism.

I assume you are aware of Kata Tjuta as well as Uluru. I think I preferred Kata Tjuta though both are spectacular. Be aware if you decide to camp in Alice Springs area that dingos are very common. As in they will approach your tent while you sleep and we were advised to avoid toilet trips in the night. Loads of people camp and it's safe-just a little unnerving and requires a bit of caution.

I would advise a car in Cairns. Tour buses are common in NT and might be more comfortable depending on your confidence in driving in areas with very few amenities.
posted by jojobobo at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’d advise against Uluru. It’s an expensive destination, and the experience really didn’t equal the amount I spent to get there and see it. If you can do it cheaply, perhaps, but I travelled for 6 months and I think that was the only thing I’d do differently.

Whitsundays got rave reviews from fellow travellers.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:10 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also sorry if I'm pointing out the obvious but this site has a number of suggestions for what to do up north if you decide to explore NT further. I think you're at the right time of year to see things around Kakadu and Katherine. I'm hugely jealous if you get to go there but my impression is that tourism up there gets expensive quickly due to the remoteness of it all.
posted by jojobobo at 2:13 PM on November 26, 2017

Yeah, the Whitsundays are lovely.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:15 PM on November 26, 2017

Best answer: This is my last comment! But I would just consider that the Whitsundays and Uluru are very different experiences. The Whitsundays are very beautiful white sand beaches and clear waters.... They're also, to me, not massively different to what you'd get in many beach locations around the world. Uluru and Kata Jtuta offer the opportunity to engage, albeit in a limited way, with indigenous culture and mythology and the landscape and environs are pretty unique based on my own travelling. On the other hand, it is also just a big rock if you look at it that way and if you go at the wrong time it can be busy and you lose some of the peaceful ambience (which is why you should do kata Tjuta too- long quiet walks).

It really depends what your jam is, but if it were me and I had the cash I'd see a bunch of things in NT and then Sydney for the beaches and urban culture, and Cairns for the weather and beaches.
posted by jojobobo at 2:23 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have stayed in both Song Hotels in Sydney and the one on downtown Sydney is right near everything and was, when I was there about seven years ago, incredibly moderately priced no frills good place to stay. When I traveled around Australia we found Wotif to be a pretty good place to track down accommodations as well. I mostly spent time in WA so don't have much local advice except try to see the fruit bats come out and the sun there is NO JOKE (esp compared to where your profile says you are from) so even if you are not the hat-and-cover-up sort of person, consider it.
posted by jessamyn at 2:33 PM on November 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Darwin is OK but you'll want to see & spend at least a couple of days at Kakadu National Park. Make sure to see the rock art & go for a bush walk or 2. I took some amazing tours with the locals there that are totally worth the money, if you're going to spring for a tour this is the place. Kakadu is like nothing else in the world, there is a reason it's on the world heritage list and you'll be there during the dry season which is perfect. There is fancy accommodation, but you can get cheaper cabins at the caravan park & some mid price accomodation. Rent a car and you can find your way around the major points of interest within the park yourself, just spring for a guide book so you'll know more about what you're seeing if tours are out of your budget.

While the Great Barrier Reef is amazing & worth seeing, unless you are out on the reef (which is further off the coast than most people think & you have to go out on a boat to see it in most locations) Northern Queensland beaches are like tropical beaches everywhere pretty much so how much time you want to spend there will depend on how many other tropical beach type places you've visited.
posted by wwax at 3:10 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live in Sydney and have co-workers with young teens. What does your son like / like to do?
posted by jrobin276 at 3:17 PM on November 26, 2017

Tip: see if you have any air miles you can use on Qantas/Jetstar/Virgin Australia to reduce the cost/time of flying directly to Uluru - the cash fares are very high given the limited traffic and you'll save a day of travel to/from Alice Springs. The airport is only a few miles from the site and if your program is distance-based, you'll probably save a bundle.

Miles can actually be cheaper than cash fares if you arbitrage it right, and sometimes are more flexible. If you collect British Airways Avios, for example, you'll spend 7500 Avios one way from Ayers Rock Airport to Cairns but A$468 on the cheapest economy seat on the random late-August day I chose; outright buying 7500 Avios from British Airways' site (which is usually bad value) is only USD 245 (A$321) and Avios redemptions are flexible. There's much more about this and how you'd check for availability here.

Finally, I was in Sydney this past August and I really, really liked this place (but don't tell anyone!).
posted by mdonley at 3:45 PM on November 26, 2017

I would give Uluru, Alice Springs and Darwin a miss to be perfectly honest. I would do Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane-Daintree & Reef. There are international flights out of Cairns and Townsville, up in North Queensland. If you want to see a bumhole Australian town, Cairns and Townsville more than fit the bill, plus every other town you'll pass through that isn't one of the three major cities mentioned.

The route outlined above is an absolutely spectacular drive and will capture about 60% of the touristy stuff Oz has to offer (missing out, of course, on Tasmania, Kakadu, the Kimberley, the Bight, the Nullarbor).
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:29 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh sorry, I missed the bit where you're going from Cairns to Sydney anyway.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:32 PM on November 26, 2017

Best answer: I almost said 'don't bother with Darwin', but if you're there in August you'll be there for the Darwin Festival. And Fannie Bay is nice, and a continuous source of amusement for Americans. And yeah, the Mindil Beach Markets are pretty great. And you can eat at Hanuman. OK, can I come?

Kakadu is amazing, but so is Nitmiluk, especially Katherine Gorge.

Alice, you can probably skip it if you're also doing Cairns. They haven't announced dates for the Desert Festival in 2018 yet. Do Kings Canyon instead.

Beaches in Cairns (or anywhere inside the reef for that matter) are OK, I guess? The water is flat, tends to be a muddy green on bad days and a flat grey-blue when it isn't (see these pics of Trinity, for example), the sand is rough, and mud flats and mangroves aren't far away (these may be your thing if you're into tropical marine biology). The reef is amazing, but beaches, not so much. The Whitsundays have much better beach action. The good news is that August is outside stinger season so you can swim without worrying about jellyfish.

I stay at the Palm Royale in Cairns. It's not too far from town, there's a supermarket nearby, and it's quite a bit cheaper than places closer to the esplanade.

Don't discount Townsville over Cairns. You can get to the reef just as easily, the view from Castle Hill is great, there's Reef HQ, Queen's Park, the Strand, and Magnetic Island is a quick catamaran ride away. (Don't bother heading inland. Just stay near the water.) Not nearly as convenient for international flights, though (shakes fist at Shelbyvi...I mean Cairns).

Uluru either deeply resonates or leaves you flat, and there doesn't seem to be much in between. I was last there about ten years ago and I still have dreams about it. I climbed as a teenager in the late 80s. Don't be me. A walking tour around the base guided by traditional owners is the best way to experience the rock.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:40 PM on November 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like that you are looking at hitting spots that are very different. There is alot of diversity in Australia and it is a shame to come all this way and miss it.
As mentioned above getting out into Kakadu from Darwin would be wonderful. Though it is alot of driving and car rental up there can be expensive and you sometimes can't get to the good spots as lots of car rentals say you can't take the car off sealed road. I would recommend jumping on a short couple of day tour. They will do the driving, take you to the good spots and you can just relax and enjoy yourself.
Putting in a plug for visiting Canberra. There are some wonderful things to do there, it is a different type of countryside again and it was just listed the third best city to visit in the world by lonely planet.
posted by daffodil at 10:50 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: All of the places you listed sound great to me but I don't think two weeks is enough time to see them all. Sydney is great, as is far north Queensland and whitsundays. As an American who has been in Australia for 7 years, I would recommend both Uluru and Darwin if you can swing it. Sydney is stunning but most other big cities aren't all that unique - I love Melbourne but it's basically a small London with better weather. Darwin is a whole other ballgame- the Crocodile Dundee Australia- and a good starting place for trips to Kakadu or Litchfield National parks. Petsonally I loved Uluru but I'm into geology and love desert landscapes. I did a camping tour that started in Alice springs and hit Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon, which were all fantastic. Alice Springs itself is not worth a visit. Depends a bit on what you like to do, but my general advice is to spend as much time exploring Australia's unique and natural beauty as you can.
posted by emd3737 at 3:56 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Cairns, I would highly recommend doing a day-tour of the Tablelands with the Uncle Brian's tour company, and get Cousin Rohan as your guide. I've mentioned this trip to half a dozen people individually and everyone I mentioned it too brights right up. A very fun day, plenty of waterfalls and short vibrant hikes and great food, and we topped it off at the end with seeing platypus in the wild. Very cool.

While you're in Cairns, make sure you see the Reef! It won't be around much longer. I went on an afternoon snorkel-and-dive boat, I don't remember the name but it was a great time. I had never tried diving before, but gave it a shot and was very glad I did.

I agree with obiwanwasabi about the beaches in Cairns. Nothing to write home about. I wouldn't plan a day around them, but it might be nice to relax for an hour or two.

I really enjoyed the zoo in Sydney. It has a lot to offer. You can do an overnight in the zoo and get behind-the-scenes action with some of the animals, if that's your thing. We spent an entire day there and it was great. The SEA LIFE aquarium downtown was also impressive, though we spent about a half day there and it was enough. There are a number of nice restaurant/bars with patios that are walking distance from the aquarium.

Manly was fun. It's a nice beach, plenty of shops/cafes/etc in walking distance, and the ferry to/from downtown Sydney is really nice. Great views of the harbor bridge and the opera house. I would guess your 13-year old would like it the most.

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park had a couple short hikes that were really beautiful. I regret not getting into the Blue Mountains while we were there, I've heard great things but have no personal experience with them.

If someone in your group really likes chocolate, the Lindt cafe in Martin Place is awesome. You can get Lindor balls of all flavors and varieties, and a bunch of tasty pastries too. Really good coffee as well.

And yes, the sun is INTENSE down there. I was living in New Zealand at the time, and was still unprepared for it.
posted by hootenatty at 2:19 PM on November 27, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you all for the diverse suggestions. I'll update this with what we end up doing.
posted by ShooBoo at 11:22 PM on November 27, 2017

I lived in Cairns for a couple of years, at Trinity Beach. Cairns "city" itself is grungy and not worth bothering with. There is no beach to speak of - it's a mud flat.

Palm Cove up north from Trinity Beach is pretty nice however. Port Douglas - much further north - is lovelier still.

In Cairns there is a pretty cool Crocodile Park (, seeing crocodiles leaping up out of the water is a thrill for any kid. Also helps reinforce the importance of obeying all the Beware of Crocodiles signs. The park also has lots of cute animals to feed or pet like wallabies and kangaroos, and you can see cassowaries up close - and even feed one a tomato if you are brave enough.

The Reef is really a once in a lifetime experience. Your son will probably be able to go snorkelling if he's a confident swimmer, but lots of tours do glass bottomed boats as well.

You've picked a good time of year to do Northern Australia - the weather will be really lovely. Further south than Sydney and it will be cold.
posted by gomichild at 6:12 PM on November 28, 2017

I spent over a year working and traveling around Australia (from US).

My biggest piece of advise is to not try and visit too many places in the short amount of time that you will be there.

Driving over to Alice Spring or Darwin is a lot of time spent in the car and the scenery really isn't all that great, or it's all the same for the most part. Going from Sydney to there and back is a lot to cover.

If you're only there for 2 weeks, I would focus your attention on what you can do between Sydney and Cairns.
posted by amedia at 8:15 PM on December 3, 2017

Response by poster: Returned from the trip two weeks ago. We had 16 full days in Australia, and spread it between:
4 days in Melbourne
3 days on a Uluru and Kings Canyon camping safari
5 days in Port Douglas
4 days in Sydney
It was a good mix of city, nature, beach, and culture. We didn't feel too rushed anywhere, but it would have been nice to have some more days everywhere but Uluru (which was great, but didn't need more time there).

As it was winter, we got a mix of weather. Melbourne had two nice days, and two rainy and windy days. The weather in Uluru was perfect during the day - sunny and not too warm (70F/21C) but dropping down to freezing at night. Port Douglas had pretty much perfect weather; sunny 75F/24C and not much humidity. Sydney had cool but sunny days.

When I realized that we could fly direct to Melbourne, it made sense to start there and end in Sydney. From Seattle we flew to LAX to pick up the non-stop Qantas flight to Melbourne that was supposed to leave at midnight (after everyone boarded, it left three hours late, but due to the time I think most people slept through the delay). As we were scheduled to arrive in Melbourne in the morning, we reserved our AirBnb from the night before so we could immediately get access to it. For the return from Sydney we flew Fiji Airways through Fiji and SFO. A couple of annoyances with the return flights: the 12 hour flight between Fiji and SFO was on a plane with an older seat entertainment system and no power at the seats for phones or laptops (check in advance what your flight has on, and since we were in transit in Fiji, we had to go through security again and we had made the mistake of buying some wine in the Sydney airport duty free shop which was confiscated as you can't bring liquids through security.

All the domestic flights were about 3 hours (Melbourne => Uluru, Alice Springs => Cairns, Cairns => Sydney) and uneventful, although be careful when flying JetStar - the prices may be low, but you pay additional for everything (including seat reservations).

We only rented a car in Cairns. In Melbourne and Sydney we walked, took public transport, or Uber.

Various tips:
In Melbourne, it's worthwhile to take a tour to Philip Island to see the Penguin Parade. For the Penguin Parade you should buy the Penguin Plus tickets and sit not in the front, but on the side near the walkway as a lot of the penguins pass right by you there.

We did this 3 day Uluru camping safari. They picked us up at the Uluru airport and at the end dropped us off in the evening at Alice Springs where we flew out in the morning. They had permanent tents at Yulara (by Uluru) and King's Canyon with with beds and electricity, and restrooms with hot showers. There were 24 people on our tour. With freezing temperatures at night, we made sure to bring plenty of warm clothes. The food was fine, but nothing special. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the bus as it's a long way between places (3 hours from Uluru to King's Canyon, and 5 hours to Alice Springs). I'd recommend this tour. We got a 20% discount by booking through Viator with their discount code for the first time booking with them. I thought this was one of the highlights of our trip, Uluru and King's Canyon are both pretty amazing. There can be crowds, but during our sunrise hike around Uluru, there was a lot of time when no one else was in sight.

Port Douglas:
We used Calypso for our snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I thought they ran a good trip and would recommend them. We also got a bonus viewing of a humpback whale seemingly showing off for us on the way out to the GBR.

A visit to Kuranda is worthwhile. We drove to the Skyrail to take the gondola over the rain forest to Kuranda (with a few stops along the way) and took the train down. If I had to do it again, I'd skip the train, and do the Skyrail both ways. The train only had two trips per day down and you're stuck on their schedule. With the Skyrail, you do buy tickets for a certain time, but since it runs continuously, I'm sure you could leave any time you wanted to. Actually, if I did it again, I'd just drive to Kuranda.

For rain forest visits, Mossman Gorge was very nice. We also drove north to the Daintree. We did stop at the Daintree Discovery Centre, the walks on the the boardwalks were nice as is the view from the tower, but it's expensive, they give you handheld audio guides which I just felt got in way of the experience, and they have a section with somewhat silly animatronic dinosaurs.

We stayed in this funky four-level mid-19th century apartment in the Rocks. It wouldn't be for everyone (with the steep stairs and bathroom only accessible by going outside on the roof terrace), but it was fun and comfortable place to stay in a great location.

The Sydney Opera House has a number of venues and a number of different things going on each night. Book in advance or you might end up like we did with standing room tickets for a play. And if it's raining, it appears they don't do the nightly light show.

The Taronga Zoo was decent. Buy your tickets on the Circular Quay before you leave to save time and so you can get on the Sky Safari to get to the top of the zoo once you get off the ferry. There was a lot of construction going on and that seemed to mess up the flow of walking to visit the exhibits. Also, be aware of the wild kookaburras when you are eating lunch; one swooped down so quickly it took me a moment to realize it stole a piece of my fish and chips.

Also, good visits to the Sydney Observatory (free entrance to their exhibits, and a good night tour) and the Sydney Jewish Museum

Many people recommended the Sydney Bridge Climb. We didn't do it, but one of the bridge pylons has a museum inside and you can walk up to the top of the pylon and go outside for some great views.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:06 AM on September 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Also: The Lonely Planet Australia is available for Kindle Unlimited, which means not only do you not have to travel with a heavy thick book, you don't have to pay for it if you already have an Amazon Prime account.
posted by ShooBoo at 8:07 AM on September 17, 2018

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