Making the best of few weeks down under?
December 10, 2007 9:09 PM   Subscribe

AussieVacationFilter: I'm a young guy in Los Angeles seriously considering a solo trip to Australia. The Qantas Aussie AirPass seems like an amazing way to build a great trip without breaking the bank. However, with the level of freedom the AirPass would give me, I want to make sure I'm using my time and multiple cities wisely. Any advice and itinerary recommendations you'd be willing to make would be greatly appreciated!

(I've seen this thread before and threads like it, and while some of the advice given will prove quite useful, my situation seems different enough to merit a new question)

I'm a single 24 year old guy. I've done the hostel thing in Europe thing before and had a great time moving from city to city, meeting new people to see the sights with by day, and soaking up the nightlife. I'd like to embark on another memorable adventure sometime in the coming months, and since I've always wanted to visit Australia it seems like a great fit.

Working way too hard and generally not having a life for the last few years has left me with gobs of paid vacation in the bank. I can definitely take a 2 week vacation. If I feel compelled and ask very nicely, they'll probably let me take 3 of my weeks at once.

With the AirPass I'd have a flight into some major city, and then 3 domestic flights within Australia. I like city life, and while I'm not sure I want to spend time in the heart of the Outback, I'd like to spend SOME time taking in some of the natural beauty available. Additionally, I'm a SCUBA diver and would like to spend a few days diving the amazing reefs.

So, wise natives and veteran travelers, I'm dying for advice about a sequence of locations to hit and the associated can't-miss events. The AirPass costs different prices based on which "Zones" you visit, but I'm willing to travel anywhere if it's worth it. Then again, as I learned on previous trips abroad, it's never fun to spend a huge portion of your vacation in transit. If I end up being based in NSW, ideas like "a day trip to Perth" are probably not going to work.

I'm happy in clean hostels, but can splurge for proper hotels from time to time if need be. I have some money saved, so I'm neither poor nor rich.
That said, prices do seem to drop as more time goes by due to change in the in the season and move to colder weather. What's the latest I can visit and still stay warm on land and in the water?

posted by adamk to Travel & Transportation around Australia (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It will remain warm here (Queensland) through to March at the very least. The reefs in far north Queensland are more accessible in our winter (June-ish) because of the absence of the (killer) box jellyfish at that time. There's also the issue of the monsoon from Nov-Feb, which means any day in Cairns, Port Douglas or Cape Trib might be a deluge.
posted by b33j at 9:17 PM on December 10, 2007

You can rent a camper van and stay in caravan parks. Byron Bay has nightlife and it is not far from the reefs.
posted by hortense at 9:46 PM on December 10, 2007

As a general guide, Sydney in autumn has pretty lousy, rainy weather. Easter is almost always rained out. The ocean temperature remains nice and warm, though. You can swim comfortably without any kind of wetsuit easily right up until easter - I'm talking water temperatures of around 20-22 degrees celsius at the beaches.

The diving around here is supposed to be best around May-June, because of clearer water, but for advice on when / where to dive, you'd probably find much better info elsewhere on the web.

I'd personally recommend Sydney above any other city for visiting. Melbourne is nice, but as a tourist it's hard to beat the scenery around the harbour. The other cities, well, the less said the better.

Summer here is pretty hot & humid; not very comfortable. Maybe mid-late March would be the latest you'd want to visit for fine, but not excessively hot, weather. You'd probably want to check whether that's a good time for diving the Great Barrier Reef, which is presumably the reef that you really want to visit.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:09 PM on December 10, 2007

As much as it pains me to say (as a Melbournian), Sydney is the quintessential Australian city. There is no point coming to Australia without seeing it. So lets assume that one is in the bag.

Withyour Scuba diving, the Great Barrier Reef is a must see. My sister in law is a dive instructor on Heron Island (off the coast of Gladstone). she says its great to holiday there, but you can quickly get a little bored. Therefore I think Cairns (a little further north) would be a much better fit for you. Bigger city, lottsa diving... and serviced by a good airport.

As for the other options.. well I guess its up to you. If you want to see some arts and culture, come to Melbourne. If you want to check out Uluru and the Australian Outback, then check out Alice Springs. I am personally keen to check out the Kimberley region in the north of Western Australia: but I think you need to invest a little bit more time and money to travel around there.. but certainly check it out.

good luck
posted by TheOtherGuy at 10:25 PM on December 10, 2007

As b33j hints, March~June or late August -> October~November would be your best times - they're more or less the off-seasons in Australia, but it's not truly winter. If you're at all concerned about all the killer snakes, insects, arthropods, cnidarians, marsupials, and sheep, then August -> November would be your best bet, as it's coming out of winter and everything's still pretty dormant. The diving is probably better earlier in the year, though.

The rest? Well ... depends on what you want to see and do. Sydney's always worth a visit to check out the lifestyle, particularly if you're staying in hostels. Melbourne's a nice place to visit, because it's so different to Sydney (and anywhere else in Australia, really!). For some reason, I really love Perth - it's a small, very pretty city, and watching the sun come up the wrong way (I live in Brisbane, on the east coast) amuses me. I'm not a great fan of any of the cities, towns, or resorts along the Great Barrier Reef, but the reef itself is a wonder that really has to be seen from both the air and up close to be appreciated.

Personally? Given your restrictions, it'd be thinking this:
  • Fly into Sydney. Spend a few days there boozing it up with locals & backpackers. Make sure you do at least one trip on the harbour, even if it's just a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and back.
  • Fly to Melbourne. Spend a couple of days there, and try to see an AFL game - I'm not a sports fan, but the atmosphere at a ground in Melbourne has to be experienced to be believed, and foreigners often seem to be stunned by the game.
  • Rent a car, drive to Adelaide - another pretty city, from an architectural and civic planning POV, but it gets boring quickly (sorry guys!). The drive along the Great Ocean Road is spectacular.
  • Fly to Uluru / Ayers Rock, spend a day or two there on a tour around the rock, down to the Olgas, or just into the desert.
  • Fly to Cairns, spend the rest of your trip either doing day trips diving out on the reef, or stay on one of the islands. Make sure you take at least one light plane trip along the reef - you really won't appreciate the scale otherwise.
  • Fly home - Qantas has (or used to have) flights out of Cairns to LA.
(A friend of mine runs a homestay / hostel for overseas students, and has the occasional backpacking tourist during the rest of the year. The other week I met some young American guys who'd just come back from driving from Brisbane to Noosa, to Uluru, to Adelaide, to Melbourne, and back to Brisbane - in 6 days. I wonder if they saw anything other than the 'roo they hit on the way back. Don't do this...)
posted by Pinback at 10:55 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know if the Qantas pass is that great value - domestic flights have dropped in cost dramatically in past years. Check out Jetstar and Virgin Blue cheap domestic flights.
I live in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney - definitely worth the 2 hour train ride to visit our little towns in the middle of World heritage listed national park. It is 3000ft higher here, so is a nice change if you have had enough hot and humid Sydney. You want Katoomba and Leura. Its well worth staying the night if you would like to do a bush walk or two.
Some nice stuff to do is get out on the harbour, a ferry ride mentioned above is cheap as it is part of the mass transit system, otherwise there are tourist boats.
A beautiful afternoon is the ferry from Circular Quay (in the heart of the city) to Watson's Bay where there is a hotel with a large outside area, pretty good food, and a magnificent view back west to the city to watch the sunset. Trust me, it will be a highlight.
The Sydney CBD is pretty manageable on foot, you want to walk around the foreshore from the Botanic Gardens and Opera house to the Rocks, which is an older part of town restored and set up for tourists. The pubs there are very popular with tourists and locals.
Also nice in Sydney is a Thursday or Friday evening around Darling Harbour. It is surrounded by trendy bars and you will find no problem meeting friendly locals, although it is more office workers than hipsters.
Ubu up thread showed commendable restraint not recommending his stamping ground of Newtown - it is a buzzing main street full of quirky shops, restaurants and pubs. I used to live nearby and the food around there is great at cheap prices.
If you wanted to go nuts on a meal, Sydney has a few world class restaurants, although maybe not as many as a few years ago. Tetsuyas would be my choice. They do a degustation menu that costs as much as a night in a nice hotel, but it is a meal you will remember. If that sounds like fun you will need to book a couple of months in advance.
Apart from the harbour, the other watery delight in Sydney is the beach.
Bondi you will no doubt have heard of, but Manly (at the end of the ferry ride mentioned earlier), Coogee & Maroubra (near Bondi) and Cronulla (an hour on the train south) are all great and not as packed.
If I could have my choice, I would try and do some sailing on Sydney harbour. The CYC is such a nice place - a marina with a bar next to the city, and if you showed up early-ish and mentioned to the barman you would be happy to crew for anyone short that day I would say the odds of a free sail would be very high. They would move to a sure thing if you have sailing experience.
Sydney is a big place, spread out like LA with various suburban centres. I would skip them all as the place is really set up to focus on the city.
You might well like a day at the zoo. It is getting repetitive but it is also on the harbour, and you can get a ferry. There are plenty of koalas and kangaroos to see, but you may well find them a bit boring - they sleep a lot.
There is diving around Sydney, but I wouldn't recommend it, it is cold and murky compared to QLD reefs.
Moving out of Sydney, I think I would suggest Cairns or Melbourne as your next stop.
As mentioned, Cairns is tropical and next to the reef, but be aware you need to get a boat out to it. One of my best weekends away was when my wife was working up there and we hired a convertible and drove north from Cairns to Port Douglas and Mossman Gorge, beautiful tropical rain forest all around.
Any of the island resorts on the reef would suit - just pick the one in your budget. The cheapest is still pretty luxurious if you have been hostelling.
Melbourne, as mentioned, is a different kettle of fish. It has a more cosmopolitan feel than Sydney (not that Sydney lacks a million different cultures or lifestyles) and it tends more to the cerebral - art galleries, live music, book shops but this is tempered by its sports mad sub-culture. At one point Melbourne had more regular footy spectators per head than anywhere, and as said above they are rabid, although not violent or unfriendly.
Despite what any Melbournian might say, be aware the weather sucks. It is rainy and cold and windy and hot, often on one day, but it is a great place to visit, and the food is tremendous.
Melbourne is the second largest Greek city after Athens, and it also has sizable Italian and Asian populations, trust me, the food is good. So is the transport, with a good system of trams and trains so it is easy to get around. But be aware both Melbourne airports are a bloody long way from town.
The other suggestion I might make is to consider Tasmania. The island at the bottom is cooler and temperate. If you go in our autumn you might appreciate some cooler weather with colourful leaves after the hot climate up north. It is a magically beautiful place, perfect for jumping in a car and cruising around. Lots of bush walks, magnificent scenery and a bit of historical stuff. Good and well set up camping too if you are into that. In fact, if you want to head out of the city I recommend it no matter where you are. Try Wicked Campers for a van or head to Kmart with $100 for a pup tent, air mattress and sleeping bag.
Hope you have a great time, and message me if you have any questions!
posted by bystander at 3:35 AM on December 11, 2007

Oh, and some folk mentioned snakes and creepy crawlies up thread. They really won't be an issue, it's greatly exaggerated. Of course, if you do get bitten by a snake or a spider, go to the doctor, and don't delay ;-)
I've never had this problem, nor has anyone in my family or friends, but a few folk do get bitten each year (approximately zero die) and it is not something to ignore.
posted by bystander at 3:39 AM on December 11, 2007

This is all quite helpful so far. Keep it coming, if you please :)
posted by adamk at 7:03 AM on December 11, 2007

Sounds like a lot of fun, I would just recommend taking an airline other than Oceanic.
posted by Mr. Banana Grabber at 7:06 AM on December 11, 2007

I've been to Australia and here are my impressions:

Melbourne is to Sydney as San Francisco is to Los Angeles. We were told we'd love Sydney the best but we actually loved Melbourne more. Both should be part of your itinerary IMO.

We went to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Wonderful. And we went to Alice Springs to fly to Ayers Rock. While you said you like cosmopolitan areas I'd definitely take in some of the Outback. The middle of the country is spectacular.

We were there in August (which is like February in the northern hemisphere). It was moderate in Melbourne and Sydney and wonderfully pleasant in Northern Queensland.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:54 AM on December 11, 2007

Melbourne is to Sydney as San Francisco is to Los Angeles.

Nah, I'd dispute that. As a transplanted Yank who's been to all four places, I'd say it's more like: Melbourne is to Seattle as Sydney is to San Francisco. Sydney's got hills, easy transport, beautiful harbour, plenty of outdoor stuff, funky neighborhoods, friendly gays, etc. Melbourne has gloomy weather but lots of "culture" to make up for it, as the people who live there never tire of telling you.

bystander's comment hits just about all the highlights of the Sydney area, I think.
posted by web-goddess at 7:36 PM on December 11, 2007

That exact exchange between web-goddess & Taken Outtacontext has been done before, hasn't it?

Anyway, seconding bystander's excellent wrap-up of Sydney's main tourist attractions. The only thing I might add is that a trip to Palm Beach on a sunny day is magical, and there are plenty of harbour & ocean walks that are worth a few hours - if you go to Bondi, then walking along the cliffs to Bronte is pretty nice, for example.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:53 PM on December 11, 2007

I put in my vacation request! 3 weeks, starting sometime in April... It should get approved.

I'll probably arrive in the country on a Sunday morning and leave on a Saturday, 20 days later.

In that time, I'm thinking of the following stops, either in this order or the reverse... plus an extra day here or there... I'm sure I'll want to rest from all of the domestic travel.
  • Sydney. Get used to the time difference and stay in the area for ~5 days.
  • Fly to Cairns. Stay for ~3 days, including 2 days of diving.
  • Fly to one of these, stay for ~3 days: Alice Springs, Uluru / Ayers Rock... maaaaybe Darwin.
  • Fly to Adelaide, stay for ~2 days.
  • Rent a car (or one of those awesome vans!). Spend a full day driving the coast towards Melbourne. Camp out somewhere overnight.
  • Get to Melbourne. Stay in the area for ~5 days.
Exciting stuff! Input is still most welcome. I'll probably contact some of you helpful folks directly as I begin to solidify my plans.
posted by adamk at 9:08 PM on December 11, 2007

Sounds like a good itinerary. One thing, though: I've spent a lot of time in Adelaide, and to be honest, I think the town isn't all that interesting for visitors. I'd recommend one day in Adelaide itself, then get yourself that hire car, and go for a drive around the Adelaide Hills, then through the winery region of McLaren Vale, and down the coast to Victor Harbor, Goolwa & Hindmarsh Island. You might like to look up The Coorong as a possible spot for a first overnight camp-out, followed by a second one somewhere along the Great Ocean Road.

Wolof's in Adelaide - you might like to mefimail him for further advice in case he misses this thread.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:05 PM on December 11, 2007

Definitely Byron Bay. Then go upwards to the Barrier Reef.
posted by mjao at 4:59 AM on December 12, 2007

I'd say it's more like: Melbourne is to Seattle as Sydney is to San Francisco.

I like that comparison, web-goddess.

adamk, if you like wine and stopping at vineyards, there are lots in SE Australia (and in the Adelaide region).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:05 AM on December 12, 2007

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