Filling 5 weeks in Australia
July 17, 2007 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan 5 weeks in Australia.

We've got plane tickets (but nothing else) booked for a 5 week trip (Sept 27-Nov 2), arriving and departing from Sydney. The first half of the trip (~20 days) will be my gf and myself; we're in our early 30s and hope to split our time between outdoor/nature/wilderness type activities, and hanging out in urban areas. Our current tentative itinerary looks like this:

Sept 27-30: Sydney (recover from the flight)
Oct 1-Oct 6: Cairns/Port Douglas (lots of scuba/snorkelling, rainforest, beaches, etc)
Oct 7-8: Uluru/Ayers Rock/The Olgas
Oct 9-14: Melbourne
Oct 15-17: Sydney

at that point, my gf leaves and my mom & sister (late 20s) join me. Things are a lot more tentative at that point:

Oct 18-20: Sydney
Oct 21-29: ??? Tasmania? Melbourne? Adelaide? New Zealand?
Oct 30-Nov 2: Sydney (fly out the morning of Nov 2)

Some notes on the above "plan":
  • All dates and places are flexible, except for those involving arriving/leaving the country.
  • I've been told Melbourne is probably less interesting to visitors than Sydney, but I do have some acquaintances there which will hopefully make it much more social.
  • Based on what I've heard, inter-city travel is best done by air -- driving seems like it consume a lot more time than we'd be comfortable with on a trip of this length (we're already expecting to do some driving around major areas, e.g. the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, the Great Ocean Road out of Melbourne, etc).
  • Mom & sis are OK with minimizing the need for me to travel back to places I've already been, as it seems like there are plenty of other places to go. We are open to separating for a few days (ie, they may go to Ayers Rock without me), but in general would prefer to remain together.
While I welcome any advice that's relevant to the trip, some specific recommendations I'm looking for are:
  1. Places to stay (neighbourhoods, lodgings) and eat. We're all foodies and would rather spend on food and experiences rather than an impressive hotel room, but private bath and AC are probably minimum requirements.
  2. Day hikes/bushwalks around major metro areas. We are probably not going to bring camping gear unless it's _really_ worth it, since that's a lot to travel with when it's not a big part of the trip.
  3. Tips on domestic inter-city travel (good/bad airlines, rail, car rentals, facilities, etc)
  4. Cool things to see/do that probably aren't found in guidebooks (I've got a handful and will doubtless be consulting them frequently).
  5. Diving related recommendations, focusing on the area around Cairns, but not ruling out other parts of the GBR. My gf & I are both PADI OW-certified, but very much novice divers; considering a live-aboard for a few days, but are a bit concerned it will be too intense/take up too much of that segment of the trip.
  6. Help with fleshing out the Oct 21-29 period.
posted by kanuck to Travel & Transportation around Australia (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've never been to Australia, but it seems like you're spending a lot of time in Sydney and underestimating the amount of time you'd need in places like Uluru. Tasmania sounds really cool, if only because I've never met anyone who's ever been there.
posted by mdonley at 5:27 PM on July 17, 2007

you should go to the Melbourne Supper Club for drinks

and Longrain (Thai) for dinner
posted by mookieproof at 5:57 PM on July 17, 2007

I spent a year in Australia I drove around the entire perimiter and right through the center in a 1979 Holden HZ Station Wagon. My favorite part was the West and the top end. Thats the REAL outback lifestyle that you hear about. Sydney and Melbourne are just like cosmopolitan European cities.

Wait. You are spending 1 day in the red center? You want more than that.

If you can try to get off the beaten track. Say like fly to Alice Springs then rent a 4x4 and drive it down the Oonanadatta track back south to Adelaide or something crazy like that. I took my old beater down that track, burst 3 tyres and punctured my fuel tank, but it was the best part of my trip by a LONG way.
posted by gergtreble at 6:15 PM on July 17, 2007

Melbourne is fantastic, so don't be afraid to put aside a few days to see that city. there's plenty to see and do there.

mdonley was right about needing longer in the NT - remember you also have to travel between attractions up there, and the distances can be vast!

GBR for diving is highly recommended. if you want to do something a bit more laid-back, the northern NSW town of Byron Bay is a fantastic retreat/beach town. Gorgeous.

Spend one or more of your Sydney days going bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. But make sure you're really prepared (maps, telling people where you're going, etc) because people seem to get really lost up there. but there are fantastic things to see, like the 3 sisters.

I would be offended that you haven't included Canberra as an option, but I can't blame you. Don't come here; it's not very good for tourists (except the National Gallery, Library, Museum and High Court).
posted by Lucie at 6:18 PM on July 17, 2007

I'm very proudly Adelaide and therefore biased on that point, and love Melbourne (it's got much more cultural stuff going on) far more than Sydney.

Have you considered driving with your Mum and sister from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road? It's an amazing drive and there's lots of smaller hikes and good food to eat along the way.

There's food galore in Adelaide, the Central Markets are a must and the Coonawarra and Maclaren Vale wine regions are easily accessible on from the Great Ocean Road drive.

I could rave about my hometown for hours - let me know if you want more info.
posted by pipstar at 6:26 PM on July 17, 2007

Ooh, I've got recommendations for Sydney! A guy from my university e-mailed me out of the blue a few months ago to say he was coming here. He was asking for recommendations for things to do. I'll cut and paste what I sent to him...
I'm guessing you'll be staying fairly close to the city, so I'll limit myself to stuff that's easy to get to via food/public transport.

If you like beer (which I'm guessing is a safe bet for most people our age), I really like the Lord Nelson. It's down in the Rocks, which is the oldest part of Sydney. They brew their own beer on site and it's all really good. Lowenbrau is fun too, but it tends to fill up with tourists and bachelor parties. There's also the James Squire Brewhouse down in Darling Harbour, which has great beer but can be a bit pricey.

If you want to see the type of place Sydney Uni students would've frequented, I like the Nag's Head in Glebe. It's where my husband and his friends used to go every weekend. I can't find their live music calendar on
their website, but if Samson & Sharkey are playing, you simply must go. They rock.

Newtown is a fun neighborhood to explore. It's close to Sydney Uni so it's full of funky shops, cheap restaurants, and bars. You can take a train or a bus from the city pretty easily. The saying goes that Newtown has more Thai restaurants than any place outside Thailand, so give it a go.

Touristy stuff: I've done a lot with visiting friends/family members. The best things were the Bridge Climb (if you can afford it; it's fairly pricey); the Aquarium (the walk-through tunnels are spectacular); the Observation Deck of Centerpoint Tower (the tall, funny-looking tower in the middle of the CBD); and the Zoo (great photo ops of the city, Opera House, and Bridge). If you like silly thrills, I also really enjoyed the "Jet Boat" rides that leave from
Circular Quay near the Opera House. It's this really fast boat and they zoom you around the Harbour doing spin outs and stuff. (You will get wet.) Good, cheesy fun.

For souvenirs, just go to Paddy's Markets in Chinatown (i.e Haymarket). It's basically a giant fleamarket in the basement of a shopping mall, and it's got the cheapest prices for T-shirts, stuffed koalas, all that stuff. My family loved it. They're only open on the weekends though.

If you don't mind walking, here's the route I usually drag people on. That starts at Town Hall in
the middle of the city and goes down the main drag to Circular Quay. You can get great pictures of the Bridge and Opera House here, plus it's generally full of people and artists and buskers and stuff. Then you go around the Opera House and into the Botanic Gardens. Around
Farm Cover to Mrs. Macquarie's Point, where you will encounter busloads of Japanese tourists taking postcard pictures of the Bridge/Opera House again. Then down back across the Gardens to Hyde Park, with its big avenue of trees and the fountain and stuff.
I wouldn't bother renting a car for the days you're going to be in/around Sydney. It's fairly easy to get everywhere via public transport, and you can even take the train (or a tour bus) up the Blue Mountains and save yourself the hassle of driving.
posted by web-goddess at 6:27 PM on July 17, 2007

More time in the centre, less time in Sydney.

Other than that, there's some damn good food in Melbourne, but I'm going to resist the urge to indulge in any Melbourne/Sydney rivalry stuff (which is tough for me...).
posted by pompomtom at 6:54 PM on July 17, 2007

Fly to Cairns, drive to Port Douglas. Make sure it's a four-wheel drive to take you further north. Port isn't wonderful, used to be gorgeous sleepy town and then a nasty developer, Christopher Scase came to town and wrecked it. Don't miss Mossman Gorge, swim, bushwalk. Remember at that time of year, you can't swim off the beaches, only in the reef areas due to the box jellyfish (it'll kill ya, mate) unless you're wearing head-toe wetsuit. There's no surf in FNQ unless there's a cyclone. I like the Low Isles snorkeling trip - you go out to this tiny atoll with a lighthouse.

Accomodation north of Port Douglas - I've never stayed here, but I used to swim here as a kid, absolutely beautiful.

Wet season in North Queensland typically starts in Oct/Nov, but be prepared for some all day rainy days. It's starting to get pretty hot and steamy. (ha and as I said, you can't swim from the beach - it's mad).

Keep driving north, check out the Daintree. Be careful going bushwalking by yourselves, there's a bunch of trees that will take you down, not to mention the poisonous snakes and spiders, um and the crocodiles.

West of Cairns is Kuranda - don't miss the train / sky rail thing. Yep, it's probably in your guidebook, but even the locals do it.
posted by b33j at 7:03 PM on July 17, 2007

Ooh! I thought of a good suggestion. Go get Bill Bryson's book Down Under. (I think it might be called "In a Sunburned Country" in the US.) Read it. It's hilarious anyway and it'll give you an overview of the different types of experiences you can have down here.

(As a non-native, it always amuses me that whenever Melbourne versus Sydney comes up, it's always the Melbournians who get defensive and huffy. Is it egotism on Sydneysiders' part or insecurity on the Melbournians'?)
posted by web-goddess at 7:11 PM on July 17, 2007

Kuranda is lovely! I think there's a butterfly park near by too, I went there many years ago as a kid so I'm not sure if it's still there.

Nth the advice on spending more time in the centre- although I would suggest you don't underestimate Melbourne. I've often heard that people from Sydney and Adelaide (both places I have lived in) go there to shop, so if you're looking for interesting and funky boutiques that sell the sort of things you won't see anywhere else in Oz, Melbourne's for you. I know I go there every 6-12 months for some culture and commercial indulgence!

If you feel like a day walk while you're in the Sydney area you can catch a train to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and walk for about 30mins til you get to the Skyway and Scenic Railway. This is a really fun way to see what the area is like- the 'railway' was used by miners to transport coal (I think). It is terrifying but exhilerating- using a counter weight, the train plummets down a sheer drop which opens out into a huge vista of the surrounding valley. You can do a day or half a day walk from here, but unless you want to camp overnight I don't suggest clambering across the landslide nearby- once you're past it, you're pretty much past the point of an easy wander back to the railway. Good for a look though.

Also another short walk you can do is called (I think) Sassafras to Burning Palms. It's down the South Coast- you need to get a train to Otford, climb up the hill towards the sea and then walk back towards Sydney until you come to a small parking area. The walk starts from the cliff tops, so be careful. Once you cross the plateau and start to get down into the forest you'll be pleasantly surprised- there is a lot of variation in flora and I have even seen an echidna down there a few times! You need to walk all the way down the spur until you get to an open grassy area, from there you can go to the Beach or turn around and go back. Make sure you're aware of train departure times-- if you miss one, there used to be a cafe on the hill that sells apple pie to weary walkers.
posted by gerls at 7:32 PM on July 17, 2007


I live in the Blue Mountains 60 miles west of Sydney. Since you mention bushwalking, it is definitely the place to be. It is a pleasant 2 hour train trip, or you can drive in 1.5hrs. I would suggest staying over a night, as there are many nice restaurants and good places to stay.
If you decide to do some camping, it would be possible to get a cheap tent, sleeping bags and stove for well under $100, which would seem a better bet than bringing your own.
You should look at Jetstar, Tiger Airways and Virgin Airways web sites and join their mailing lists. They have regular specials which could allow you to fly for peanuts.
One thing you might consider is getting a beach house for a week. The weather will be good, and rentals for a fully furnished house for a week would be not too expensive as it is not peak season, probably less than 3 nights in a city hotel.
You can get a very good feel for the Aussie lifestyle spending a week in a small town on the beach, eating seafood in the pub beer garden every evening...I can't wait for summer.
Email me if you want suggestions or have questions.
posted by bystander at 8:12 PM on July 17, 2007

Kuranda is lovely! I think there's a butterfly park near by too, I went there many years ago as a kid so I'm not sure if it's still there.

It's still open; I was there just last week. It's nice enough, but I'm not sure that it's worth the $15 they're charging for it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:39 PM on July 17, 2007

This is old info, but hopefully will be of use - I lived in Australia for a year when I was 13, mostly north of Sydney, although we spent time in most of the major cities, and did a bunch of driving around.

It's worth a day trip to take the ferry to Manly, and then bus up to a town on the north shore. Watch the surfers, get a kilo of ham and cheese and bread at a shop, and picnic on the rock reefs (the Colloroy ones are one of my ten most favorite places in the world). There's a fabulous fruit market in Narrabean, for example, and if you go all the way to the end of the line you can hike up Barrenjoey Head, which is a protected nature preserve, but beautiful.

We spent a week in Tasmania, and we rented a campervan for a few days near a park near the mountains, and walked around the parks during the day. It's a very Tasmanian experience, we were told, and it was great fun. It got cold at night - prepare to bundle up. While walking around Tasmanian parks we saw Tasmanian devil tracks and some large cat tracks, and it was generally beautiful. We touristed around the penal colony, too, and I wish we had known about the the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park ("Be a friend of the Devil") about a half hour outside of Hobart. This is what I remember most about Tasmania.
posted by julen at 8:55 PM on July 17, 2007

Seconding pipstar and everyone else - Melbourne is a great city and that ocean road trip is beautiful. I think Twelve Apostles is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.
posted by gt2 at 9:59 PM on July 17, 2007

Nthing more time at Ayers Rock---I was there for three days.

In Sydney, I stayed at the Hyde Park Inn during my first leg of the trip ---didn't like it (the in-room hot water heater was tiny, so I had to take army showers which made it difficult to wash my hair), but according to their website they've refurbished. In Melbourne, I stayed at one of the Quest serviced apartments, which I liked much better.

If you enjoy museums, don't pass up Canberra, though I agree that the architecture isn't much.
posted by brujita at 10:06 PM on July 17, 2007

I'd recommend you hop over to NZ in that uncertain period. You may not be in this part of the world again in the near future, so you can bruise two birds with one stone, and the airfare is quite cheap. The NZ landscape is very different to the Australian one, especially on the South Island. The Kiwis have real mountains, for example, and everything's a lot greener. Australia tends to get very flat, dry & boring (unless you are into endless dusty pastures, wheatfields or deserts) once you get more than an hour or two from the coast.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:07 PM on July 17, 2007

Be aware that due to differences of opinion about the Government's plans for Indigenous communities in the NT, there have been media reports that the traditional owners of Uluru are considering banning tourist access to the rock. You might want to have a Plan B just in case that eventuates.
posted by robcorr at 11:03 PM on July 17, 2007

As someone who has holidayed across Australia. Here are some ideas based on my experiences:

** Cairns
- Fly to Cairns and hire car.
- Do a day trip driving from Cairns to Daintree Rainforest
- Spend a day doing the tour where you catch the train to Karunda, lunch in Karunda/see Butterfly farm, cable car back down
- spend day going Great Barrier Reef (Green Island, outer reef)
- optional extra: spend day on an island
- optional extra: go chartered fishing on the reef
- optional extra: day trip to Port Douglas and Mossman Gorge

You of course can do heaps more in Cairns, but I would say if you are looking to pack in as much of the 'famous' things in Cairns in as short a period of time, those 4-5 things covers it.

** Uluru
Uluru/Olgas is nice except it's a long way from nowhere and it takes days to drive there, and if you catch a plane, the flights aren't that frequent.

I think you get 'better value' from visiting Darwin and either Kakadu or Litchfield National Park.

** Adelaide / Melbourne
I was born in Adelaide and I currently live in Melbourne. Much as I love both cities, as a tourist with limited time I'd skip spending too much time in these cities.

I do recommend possibly driving from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road though. That is a very scenic drive.

** Sydney
Plenty to see in Sydney. But as someone else mentioned, I'd take time to head to the Blue Mountains.
posted by tobtoh at 12:12 AM on July 18, 2007

It'll probably be colder than you think in Sydney and Melbourne when you come so pack some warmer stuff.
posted by thelongcon at 12:20 AM on July 18, 2007

Before our trip to Oz everyone told us we'd love Sydney more than Melbourne. Turned out just the opposite. Melbourne is to San Francisco as Sydney is to L.A., IMHO. Take a nice walk in the Botanical Gardens.

We took a small 4 seater plane from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock. Flying low over the landscape was beautiful and we spied a few camels along the way.

It's worth a day trip to take the ferry to Manly...

Funny story about Manly: because we decided to go to Australia on the spur of the moment, we ended up taking a couple Grey Line tours (we're not the Grey Line tour types but we decided it would be a good way to get an overview of Sydney).

After the bus driver/tour guide gave us this spiel we hightailed it out of that bus: "We are now in Manly, which got its name from Captain Cook. When he spied the Aborigines he said, 'My aren't they manly, hence the name Manly." Egads.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:14 PM on July 18, 2007

Just a comment on Melbourne for shopping. That's true that people from Brisbane and Sydney take advantage of the shopping selection, but it is better relative to Australia - which frankly is pretty crap. Things are also more expensive than the US/Canada. You'll find plenty of kitschy stuff in any of the places you visit, and web-goddess' suggestion of Paddy's Market in Sydney is good for picking up all those fun/cheap iconic Aussie trinkets for folks back home. Plus you won't have to carry it during the rest of your trip since you are leaving from here.

You can take nice trips by train or bus to the Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley (hiking and vineyards respectively).

I wouldn't bother with Cairns (pronounced Cans, if you didn't know already) and go straight to Port Douglas. Just came back from a Holiday there and Cairns is just Airport for the most part (sorry all you Cairnsanites!).

If you are snorkelling in Port Douglas, I highly recommend Wavelength. Relatively small outfit that goes to some of the prime locations on the reef. Poseidon has a very good rep for SCUBA, and we enjoyed the day, but they are much bigger and work more like a dive factory. Too many people to really enjoy it. Still, you won't be disappointed, just may have a smoother experience with one of the smaller operators.

Also, I may be biased, but Sydney is not like LA. More like San Fran. Melbourne = Chicago. Brisbane is Tampa. But it's all good for someone visiting because it is all new and different. You'll enjoy the ferries and harbour of Sydney and all the easy to walk to communities. One of the most walkable cities I've ever been to.

Oh, and one of the best Asian dishes you can get in Sydney is Laksa. Never heard of it living in the US and it is now a staple of our diets here. There are at least 5 different varieties and they are all good.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by qwip at 5:05 AM on July 19, 2007

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