All you need to know before leaving

All you need to know before leaving

Fluffy clouds move over Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) in the Outback (Getty)

Fluffy clouds move over Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) in the Outback (Getty)

Australia has considerable urban energy and an ever-growing food and drink scene, but where it excels is the happy, lucky outdoor lifestyle. It’s a place for public beach barbecues and watching surfers ride the waves.

It is also a country that embraces nature, with extensive coral reef systems, coastal reserves, and an extensive network of forested national parks. Kangaroos hang out on campsites, koalas sleep in trees along the trails, and dolphins have fun in the bays.

Australia also excels at the epic. Endless blue skies stretch over rumpled outback scenes and hugely rewarding road trips wind their way through seemingly untouched landscapes.

Current travel restrictions and entry requirements

Visitors to Australia need a visa. For the vast majority of people from the UK, this will be subclass 651 eVisitor, which is free and can be completed online.

Most of the Covid restrictions have been dropped. There is no need to test or show proof of vaccination prior to entry. However, masks on inbound flights are still mandatory and you will still need to isolate yourself if you test positive for Covid while in Australia. The rules in each state are slightly different. The Department of Health website links to each state’s restrictions.

The best time to go

Meteorologically, the best time to visit varies enormously based on geography. Aim from May to October in the tropical north and the reverse in the south. Spring (September to November) is a mild place with less rain than autumn. Prices and crowds increase in January, the main period of the school holidays. It can also be terribly hot right now.

New Year’s Eve in Sydney is popular and truly memorable but extremely expensive for accommodation. Other events to jump into include the Melbourne Cup horse race (early November), the Adelaide Festival (March) and Anzac Day (April 25).

Major cities and regions

Sidney

Unquestionably one of the largest cities in the world, Sydney offers natural beauty around the harbor, a legion of beaches to envy along the coast, plus trendy urban energy in inner suburbs like Surry Hills and Chippendale. It truly works as a beach vacation destination and a city break, with great activities like climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge offset by free days in the ocean rock pools. The Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley wine region can be reached on a day trip.

Melbourne

With an emphasis on culture rather than appearance, Melbourne is filled with galleries, museums and art venues. But the real joy comes from the alley culture, where specialty bars and restaurants from around the world congregate in small alleys, surrounded by world-class street art. The Victorian capital is also the stepping stone to the coastal Great Ocean Road and penguin-watching on Phillip Island.

Cairns

Cairns, one of the many gateways for snorkelling and liveaboarding to the Great Barrier Reef’s aquatic wonderland, has the advantage of being surrounded by World Heritage-listed rainforest. Reef hikes can be mixed with tropical produce tasting in the Atherton Plateau, Aboriginal guided tours of the Daintree Rainforest, and a range of adrenaline-pumping activities.

The Red Center

The 10km walk around Uluru, with its strange bulges, caves and indigenous cultural sites, is the quintessence of the inland experience. What most visitors don’t realize, however, is that there are plenty of other experiences on the Red Center menu. Dot painting workshops, dune-top dinners, helicopter flights, and camel rides are among the options in Uluru, and that’s before you consider side trips to the smooth rock domes of Kata Tjuta and hikes along the craggy Kings Gorges Canyon.

Perth and the South West

The South West is a perfect Australia for beginners. Perth offers Indian Ocean beaches, a lively bar and restaurant scene, as well as cute encounters with curious quokkas on Rottnest Island.

A short road trip around the southwestern corner of the Western Australian capital, meanwhile, brings high-quality wine tastings to Margaret River, stunning surfing beaches, whale watching cruises from Dunsborough, high easily explored forests and caves.

The best destinations under the radar

The coral reef of Ningaloo

On the remote west coast flanked by the inland, Ningaloo is best known for its swims with whale sharks. Watching the largest fish on earth swim by is truly exhilarating. At different times of the year there is also the opportunity to swim with humpback whales and manta rays.

But the Ningaloo’s discreet glory lies in the way it runs close to the shore. A short swim from white sand beaches like Osprey Bay takes you among the swaying corals and schools of colorful fish. At Turquoise Bay, you can snorkel adrift, letting the current carry you across the reef from one end of the beach to the other.

The high end

The severely underrated Northern Territory capital Darwin offers a curious mix of outpost attitude, Asian culture and bohemian quirks. It is the hub for exploring the majestic Top End National Parks. Litchfield National Park is home to giant termite mounds, postcard waterfalls and rock pools. Nitmiluk hosts cruises and kayaking trips through the soaring sandstone walls of Katherine Gorge. Meanwhile, the largest of them all, Kakadu National Park, offers crocodile-watching cruises, ancient Aboriginal rock art, and epic views over vast green floodplains.

McLaren Vale

Truly, there is a fabulously indulgent time to experience in any of the wine regions near Adelaide. The Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills are world-class food and wine tasting destinations.

But McLaren Vale, as well as being arguably the best place in Australia for those big, muscular Australian Shirazes, has the advantage of being close to the extremely under-sold, dune-lined beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula. Some of these, like the highly photogenic Sellicks Beach, are so large that you can drive a 4WD vehicle along them.

Then, a short ferry ride from Cape Jervis at the tip of the peninsula, you’ll find koalas, echidnas, and sea lion-dotted Kangaroo Island, one of Australia’s great natural havens.

The best things to do

Wine tasting

It’s a bold claim, but Australia does wine tasting better than anywhere else in the world. Many wineries offer free tastings, many have great restaurants, and staff are usually happy to switch between relaxing snacking sessions and nerdy note-taking, depending on guests’ preferences.

Most regions have operators offering full- or half-day wine tours, often with visits to cheese and chocolate factories. Convenient regions include Hunter Valley near Sydney, Barossa Valley near Adelaide, Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, and Swan Valley near Perth.

Marine encounters

Australia’s wide range of aquatic experiences extend far beyond the Great Barrier Reef. Dozens of places offer dolphin watching cruises with a few, such as those at Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne or Bunbury near Perth, allowing guests to swim with wild dolphins.

Whale watching is also widespread across the country, with Hervey Bay in Queensland and Eden in New South Wales prominent locations.

You can also snorkel with herbaceous sea dragons in Port Phillip Bay, kayak with dolphins in Byron Bay, NSW, and swim with sea lions in Baird Bay, South Australia.

Aboriginal cultural experiences

Indigenous cultural tours that explain the local Aboriginal perspective on the local landscape, history and wildlife are growing in both number and quality. Tourism Australia has rounded up 185 best Aboriginal experiences across the country, including guided walks, art workshops and bush food tastings.

Move

Distances between major cities are enormous, and most travel between them on (relatively cheap) domestic flights.

Autonomous driving is an attractive and inspiring way to see the country. Distances are longer, but fuel is cheaper than in the UK. The highways are well maintained and the stress reduction of traffic outside the big cities.

The long-distance rail services operated by NSW Trainlink and Queensland Rail Travel are superficial, fairly slow, and miss out on the most attractive coastal towns. Bus services like Greyhound tend to have better stops and convenient passes for more destinations, but you need to plan the schedules.

How to get there

The fastest: The only direct flight to Australia is the Qantas service from Heathrow to Perth. It takes 16 hours and 45 minutes.

The cheapest: Otherwise, expect to change planes somewhere. Companies like Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways offer regional departures from outside London, and no airline is reliable. Much depends on which airline has a promotional offer at that time. The minimum flight times for a stopover are 19 hours and 20 minutes with Qatar Airways to Perth and 22 hours and 30 minutes with Singapore Airlines to Sydney.

Money saving tip

The best things about Australia – wildlife encounters and beaches – are generally free. Low-cost cabin accommodations at coastal resorts often combine both. Generally aimed at Australian families traveling in caravans, these parks usually provide some relatively spacious, kitchen-equipped, multiple-bedroom units, occasionally with kangaroos popping out.

Frequent questions

What is the weather like?

Hot summers and predominantly mild winters in the south, wet season and dry season in the north.

What time zone is it in?

Time zones vary by state, but range from GMT + 8 in Perth to GMT + 11 during the summer in Sydney.

What currency do i need?

Australian dollars.

What language do we speak?

English.

How much should I tip?

Tipping is not expected in Australia, but some people choose to round up the bill or leave 10%.

Which side of the road am I driving on?

Australia drives on the left.

David Whitley runs Travel to Australia consulting site Australia travel applications

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