Take an upscale excursion rich in experiences to the Land Down Under
Written by Jenny Peters
NEW SOUTH WHALES
Start in Sydney, one of the planet’s most visually spectacular cities. This vibrant place has its must-see stops, especially for the first timer. Ascend the steps of the Sydney Opera House (take in a show there, too); wander through the Botanical Gardens and gaze at the huge sulfur-crested cockatoos, ibis and rainbow lorikeets; and climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Stay at the Four Seasons Hotel near Circular Quay with its spectacular views of the city’s celebrated harbor, or choose the ultra-chic QT Sydney, an edgy and fun boutique hotel in the center of town.
For a wonderful day, head to Coogee Beach, then hike the spectacular four-mile cliff-top walk to Bondi Beach for swimming, surfing, sunning, and shopping. Keep walking into Watson’s Bay to try Moreton Bay Bugs (picture a less attractive lobster) and other local seafood delights at Doyles on the Beach, a restaurant that dates to 1885, then ride the ferry back across the gorgeous harbor to Circular Quay at the city’s heart.
Stop by Chippendale and Barangaroo, the up-and-coming neighborhoods that are taking Sydney by storm. Visit the famed White Rabbit Gallery and other newer galleries that have made Chippendale the place to be, and take in the historical Aboriginal roots of Barangaroo inside The Cutaway, the area’s massive cultural space and market area. Be certain to eat at Cirrus, where the world-class seafood will tantalize your taste buds. If planning a trip to Sydney in June, when it’s their winter, experience the incredible annual light installation-projections called Vivid, an electric art festival that’s a fantastic sight to see.
Find more art further north in New South Wales; Byron Bay and Tweed Heads are favorite getaway spots for both locals and tourists. Tweed Regional Gallery boasts a fascinating permanent exhibit on famed Australian artist Margaret Olley, as well as beautiful rotating displays and a bucolic setting. Nearby, Byron Bay has it all for a perfect holiday, including luxurious places to stay—Elements of Byron, with its freestanding modern villas, lavish pool and serene private beach is one of the newest choices—along with chic shops, plenty of water sports and an iconic lighthouse with expansive views. Farm-to-table eateries abound in this laid-back region, with Mavis’s Kitchen, Paper Daisy, Three Blue Ducks on the Farm and Harvest Café all worth seeking out for their fine fare.
You could spend months in the vast state of Queensland, moving from one striking landscape to another, but practically speaking, taking in the southern part of the state (Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Surfer’s Paradise) then flying to the far north (Cairns, Port Douglas, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest) is the best way to see the highlights of this sunny, warm and unique region.
Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat is the gem of the south, a luxury wellness-spa destination tucked up in the highlands above the Gold Coast. Thoughtfully designed to elevate getting away from it all to a whole new level, this is the place to decompress at your own pace. You’ll know you’ve arrived as you wend up the mountain and spot the koala and wallaby crossing signs; it’s wild up here, and you never know what you’ll encounter on a hike into the bush (as Aussies call the woods). Gwinganna’s gorgeous world-class spa (with 33 treatment rooms) is an integral part of the retreat experience, which emphasizes the Aboriginal idea of Dreamtime—stopping to rest, relax and be pampered. Digital detoxing is another focus, so be ready to do without phones, computers and televisions while visiting.
Come down from the Gwinganna state of bliss to surf along the Gold Coast, where the breaks are legendary (it isn’t called “Surfer’s Paradise” for nothing). With names like The Superbank, Burleigh Heads, Mermaid and The Spit, there’s plenty of waves to go around here. Think Miami Beach, but with great surf. If you’d rather feed wild dolphins and swim with sea turtles and dugongs, go straight to Brisbane, where Moreton Island’s Tangalooma Resort offers these incredible experiences. Every night, a family of 12 wild dolphins arrive, looking for a dinnertime snack. It’s quite a rush to feed one, then watch him swim off into the Coral Sea.
Even more of a rush comes in Far North Queensland, where two stunning World Heritage sites await. Fly to Cairns, the jumping off point for the first of these sites, the Great Barrier Reef, and get ready to swim with sharks—species that don’t bite humans, of course—as well as stingrays, moray eels, sea turtles, manta rays and much more. Make your home base the lovely Thala Beach Nature Reserve with a villa in the midst of the beachfront forest, then choose a day trip (it takes two to three hours to get out to the reef) on one of the luxurious Quicksilver Cruises departing from Port Douglas or Cairns. Scuba divers will adore going all in with Reef Encounter’s liveaboard ship—head out for three full days on the water, dive four times a day, and wine and dine too. (Choose the “Top Deck” package and be pampered every step of the way.) The Great Barrier Reef is truly is a breathtaking place for divers and snorkelers to experience.
The second World Heritage site in the area is Daintree National Park, the world’s oldest rainforest, where crocodiles still swim free, rare species thrive and wild landscapes abound. Take a guided tour to the park, including Mossman Gorge and the wild beach at Cape Tribulation to the far north, with a river trip for croc spotting. A helicopter ride is an incredible way to see this part of the world, too.
No visit to the eastern coast of Australia is complete without a stop in the state of Victoria to see Melbourne (arguably the country’s most sophisticated city) and beyond. Make the legendary Langham Hotel home base for its top-notch service, famous afternoon tea and incredible buffet at Melba Restaurant (where locals seem to outnumber tourists). It’s in the heart of town, making for an easy stroll to the National Gallery of Victoria, the massive Royal Botanical Gardens, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and the countless coffee shops, secret bars and fabulous restaurants that make this such a vibrant city.
Melbourne has embraced street art like no other place in the world, especially in the narrow laneways and arcades that date back to Victorian times and have emerged as the cultural meeting places of those in-the-know. Visit Hosier Lane, where graffiti artists are encouraged to paint on all the walls, then check out ACDC Lane, and begin to look for the clandestine bars and restaurants dotting the Central Business District. For inside info, pick up a Luckie Guide card deck (Eats or Bars), with 52 curated places that you might never find otherwise. Some of the hottest places (like Eau de Vie or Bar Americano) don’t even have signs, but they’re packed and have a seriously cool vibe. Two favorites for food are the Arbory Bar & Eatery, along the river, and Cumulus, Inc., one of the many sophisticated choices on Flinders Lane.
Before finishing up this extensive tour of Australia’s east coast, take a day to travel to another of the Land Down Under’s natural wonders: the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles, alluring limestone rock formations rising out of the Southern Ocean. Book a bespoke trip with Melbourne Private Tours and make plenty of stops along the way, with the chance to see koalas in the wild, whales and dolphins in the water, waterfalls, famous surf breaks and beautiful beaches. Grab a seat for a 15-minute ride with 12 Apostles Helicopters for a breathtaking view of these natural treasures.
When your eastern Australia trip is in your memory bank, just think: There’s much more to see in three other states (Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory) and Tasmania. A truly wondrous thought for a continent equally so.