Australia is such a big country that it’s impossible to put together a comprehensive list of all the must-see places to go and things to do. In 2017, we spent 5 weeks traveling throughout Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. While 5 weeks seems like a lot of time, it still isn’t enough to see all of Australia. We, unfortunately, had to skip Tasmania and Western Australia. Based on our experiences, and the regions we visited, here is a list of the top 5 things to do in Australia, and 3 that can be skipped.
5 Things To Do In Australia…
1. Drive the Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road technically extends along the southern coast of Australia from Torquay in the east to Portland in the west. Some do it as a LONG day-trip or an overnight out-and-back from Melbourne. The better option is to drive the road over the course of a few days between Melbourne and Adelaide.
Extending your time on the road allows for occasional stops to check out some of the scenic coastal towns along the route and to take photos from the many amazing viewpoints. In general, we didn’t find Australia to be particularly picturesque, but the Great Ocean Road was one of the exceptions. There are many stunning vistas along the coast, making the drive road-trip worthy. Check out our post on driving the Great Ocean Road.
2. Get Up Close and Personal With a Saltwater Crocodile near Darwin
We spent most of our time on the north, east, and south coasts of Australia trying to avoid crocodiles, but in Darwin we searched them out. About an hour drive from Darwin, in the Northern Territory, is the Adelaide River and the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise.
The tour is an hour long boat ride up and down the Adelaide River, searching for crocs. The guides are very experienced, and almost always find at least a couple of crocs. While the crocodiles are wild, they’ve clearly learned that they’ll get fed when the boat comes around. But hey, what other chance do you get to come within a few feet of one of these massive creatures?
3. Ride The Ghan train through the Outback
The Ghan is known as one of the best train journeys in the world. Now, this one isn’t for the budget traveler, but it’s definitely worth the splurge. Traveling from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north (or vice versa), there is no more comfortable way to see the hot, burnt centre of Australia than riding The Ghan.
The northbound trip was 3 days/2 nights, with a sunrise breakfast in Marla and included excursions in Alice Springs and Katherine. The food was excellent, and there was a great selection of wine and beer (all included in Gold/Platinum classes). The rooms were comfortable with a bench seat during the day and bunk beds at night.
The only issue we had was someone left a tap on in our car, so we ran out of water overnight on the first night (so no toilets, no way to wash up etc.) until we stopped in Alice Springs. The excursions are also essentially mandatory, so there didn’t seem to be an option to just stay on the train or wander around the Alice Springs or Katherine independently.
Other guests were very social, with every two cars of rooms sharing common lounge cars and dining cars, so you get to know people very quickly. We were a bit surprised that most of the other travelers were Aussies – interestingly, when Trevor took the famous Canadian train trip between Vancouver and Toronto, many of them were Aussie as well.
We wrote a post on our experience exploring the Australian Outback on the Ghan.
4. Go Wine Tasting Around Adelaide
While we were planning our trip to Australia, we were often told not to bother with Adelaide. We have no idea why. Adelaide is located in the centre of some of the best wine regions of Australia, including McLaren-Vale, Adelaide Hills, and the famous Barossa region.
Adelaide itself is much smaller than Sydney or Melbourne, and the result is a very walkable city centre with plenty of cafes, patios and restaurants.
Then, within an hour drive of the city, you can be tasting wine at a famous vineyard or visiting a microbrewery. What more do you need?
5. The Blue Mountains
We headed into the Blue Mountains, inland from Sydney, to get away from the heat on the east coast and to enjoy some good hiking. The hiking is good and the towns are interesting to explore. They’re not exactly mountains, in the Rockies or Alps sense of the word. But staying in Katoomba was a great change of pace from the coastal surf scene.
…And 3 That Can Be Skipped
1. Scuba Dive the Great Barrier Reef
Diving and snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef was one of two big splurges of our time in Australia. We did a day cruise from Cairns, that included a dive and two snorkeling sessions. And…meh. It’s tragic that so much of the Great Barrier Reef is being bleached and is dying due to warming water temperatures.
The result is you see few of the vibrant colours and less of the marine life that everyone visits the Great Barrier Reef to see. We also found that the water visibility was pretty shitty, which our diving instructor said was normal. There may be other parts of the reef that are less impacted by tourist crowds, or have been less impacted by the bleaching, but they’re also more difficult to get to. We saw more marine life while diving in Malaysia and Thailand than in Australia.
2. Beach Time
The beaches were probably our biggest disappointment of Australia. There are hundreds (thousands?) of beautiful, sandy beaches along the east coast of Australia (check out our full post). But you know what? Many of them are completely unusable for swimming. In the summers in Queensland, while it can be incredibly hot and sunny, the box jellyfish in the ocean entirely close down the beaches. Sure there are some small areas that have jellyfish nets, but then you still have to worry about the crocodiles. Oh yeah, and there are sharks.
Further south, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, and towns like Byron Bay are known as beach destinations. While jellyfish aren’t as much of an issue, rip tides are. In fact, on long, beautiful beaches, swimming is usually restricted to very small areas that are heavily patrolled by life guards. Yes, there is plenty of great surfing, but other than that, the beaches are generally disappointing. Of course, that’s if you brave the traffic and crowds, and can find a place to park.
3. Driving The East Coast
We rented a car in Brisbane, with plans to drive down the coast to Sydney. Along the way, we’d check out the beach towns and other sights. Sounds like a great plan, right? Unfortunately, most of the main highway is well inland, without a coastal view to be seen. If you have plenty of time, driving is the only way to check out all the beach towns down the coast. But if you’re in a hurry, you’d be better off just doing day trips to the beach from Brisbane, then fly to Sydney. You’ll save yourself hours of boring driving, and uninspiring scenery.
So that sums up our thoughts on the best things to see, and those not worth your while, from our 5 weeks touring Australia. We would love to go back sometime to see Tasmania and Western Australia. Maybe one day…