Australia -- The land down under
In the past 25 years, we have visited Australia three times. I've
only scratched the surface of this huge continent, visiting mostly the
east coast, where most of the people live and where most people go.
What most american's don't immediately realize is that Australia
is as large and varied as the entire US, and trying to see it in 2
weeks or even a month is obviously impossible.
Australia is about 8,000 miles from the west coast of the US and about
the same distance from most of Europe. Unless you are on a round
the world cruise, you will get there on a very long plane flight. The
best advice for such a flight is to try to find a way to fly business
class. First class
isn't really a huge leap over business in comfort, but business is a
leap from coach, and gives you at least some chance of getting some
From the US, you will probably depart LA or San Francisco late in
evening and arrive in Australia very early in the morning a day and a
later, after a 14 hour flight. (The international date line adds
day.) Some folks advise trying to break up the flight with a stop
say, Hawaii, but I'm not sure this is wise. 14 hours, all at
is enough to have a good meal, watch a movie, and still make a
reasonable stab at sleep, while on a shorter flight you will invariably
not get enough sleep. If you fly on a 747, try to fly on the
upper deck. Only 20-30 seats plus the pilots and usually a lot of
room on the sides for baggage. Much less likely to be disturbed
in the night than on the main deck with 300+ people.
The time difference (7-9 hours from the west coast) will challenge you.
(Remember, most of australia is on Daylight time when we are on
and vice versa. Queensland doesn't change time). Best
is to dump those bags in the hotel when you arrive and plan to spend
first day outside in the sun. After a long day out and an early
you will sleep and wake up more or less in the right time
Australian seasons are 6 months off set from the US, so if you go on a
summer vacation here, it's winter there. .Not a problem if you
are visiting the tropical north or the center, in fact it's an
advantage. Winter means cooler and drier, and avoids the
potentially deadly stinging jellyfish which inhabit the coastal beaches
in the far north during the summer. Some people try to combine
Australia with New Zealand, since both are a long way from home.
This is really too much and the seasons are a problem since
New Zealand and far southern Australia have real winter, meaning
unless you are looking to ski you probably want to go in their summer,
but winter is a better season for the rest of Australia. The
short days will surprise you
Australia drives on the left side of the road, like the UK and a few
other places. This will be an adventure for most americans.
While you can avoid driving -- you can fly to most cities and
resorts, and there is some inter-city train service, if you want to go
where you want when you want
there is no better way to do it. It's not too intimidating and
will quickly adapt.
Right hand drive cars
If you have never driven a car built for the left side of the road,
realize that the drivers seat is on the right, putting you in the
middle of the road as in the US. I knew that, but I didn't know
how the controls would be laid out in the car. The pedals are in
the car are in the same places and order as in the US -- gas on the far
right, brake left of that and clutch, if you have one, on the left.
All the hand controls, though, except the starter key, are
reversed. That means the right hand stalk on the steering wheel
controls the turn signals and lights, and the left side the windsheild
wipers/washer. Gear shift is on the left, with radio, heater and
other conveniences on the left in the center of the car. The thing you
most likely to have trouble with is turning on your windsheild
when you go to signal a turn. Locals say it's a sure way to spot
American tourist. After driving that way for 2 weeks of course
will do the same thing in your own car when you get home.
Manuevering isn't hard, though you will probably notice you have
trouble making tight corners and judging where the car turns so be
careful and have a passenger spot for you when parking. The
problem is you are used to
sitting on the other side of the car and the turning radius you see is
to be different. Left turns won't see that hard, but right turns
surprise you. Be sure to pull onto the left side of the road when
right. They obviously are aware of the problem as you will find
with "keep left" signs everywhere (just like in Monty Python, except
don't attack people :-)
You will notice the lanes are narrow in cities. Think of this
before renting something large. A Toyota Camry is a large car on
the streets of Sydney. The most notable feature of roads though
is the rotaries (or roundabouts as they call them). If you
haven't encountered these on the east coast of the US, what this means
is that several roads meet in a paved circle around a circular island.
Just remember to turn left into the roundabout, and that traffic
in the roundabout has the right of way.
You will encounter these everywhere, even on high speed roads,
often the turns are fairly sharp. Also watch out that if the
circle in the middle is small, cars from the roads to the right can
enter the circle very quickly and surprise you.
The most fundamental rule to remember is look to the right as you
attempt any maneuver. This applies to pedestrians as well as
Major roads are not unlike the US. Roads that are part of the
National Highway system will in general be good two lane roads, with
stretches of divided
highway ("Motorway"), and lots of passing lanes in any section that has
or hills. Minor roads can be narrow. Speed limits are
on most country roads (62Mph), and 60km/hour in towns (40mph), with
of 110km/hour (68) on motorways and good roads in unpopulated areas.
urban areas are bypassed on major highways, allowing you to avoid
to navigate those narrow streets. (This isn't always true,
there is no effective way to go from the Sydney airport on the south
of town to the pacific coast highway towards the north without a fair
of city streets). You can, though count on being able to make
time on major roads and generally avoid city traffic. There are
traffic lights for intersections, more for pedestrian crossings.
Many people will probably want to drive some or all of the distance
from Sydney to Cairns. This is about the same as the distance
from Boston to Miami. Most of the road is inland and not
particularly scenic, but it does give you access to many mountain parks
and coastal towns and beaches. From Sydney to Brisbane it's
a mix of freeway and good two lane road with passing lanes. The
motorway continues about 100km north of Brisbane, and from there north
it's basically 2 lanes and there are long stretches with little on
them. Past Cairns to Port Douglas the road is coastal, curvy,
spectacular, slow, and dangerous. Much past there and you need
4WD and lots of luck. Keep in mind that if you drive this route south
to north, especially in their winter, you will be driving into the sun
most of the time.
Passing is an interesting excercise since you are on the left side of
the road. The best way to pass is in the "overtaking lane" zones,
which are frequent in hilly or curvey areas but can be quite short.
in these areas if not passing. If you drive any distance, you will
quickly discover that the thing have trouble passing isn't the
narrow little microbus style vehicles common in NSW (which are easy),
or the giant seemingly overtall trucks (which keep reasonable speed),
but the &*&*! towed campers, or caravans as the aussies
call them. These seem very wide on narrow roads and you have to
stay well back to be able to see enough to pass. Whether by law
or practice, they don't go faster than 80km/hour, which seems very
slow, and if you don't pass, people will pass you.
Drivers with a valid license from an english speaking country are legal
to drive in Australia. Otherwise you need an international drivers
permit, easily obtainable proof that you can read roadsigns.
(Check though with
your rental company to be sure of their requirements). New South
(Sydney) uses radar equipped cameras to enforce speed limits and catch
light runners. We noticed signs warning of the cameras in all areas
we saw them, but don't bet on it. Most people don't speed.
Queensland also claims to use cameras though they are far less
common. Note that Australia also has cameras that look for fatigued
drivers and ones that recognize your car at different locations to
calculate your average speed. Don't speed.
Pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks and everyone respects
that. They do not have the right of way elsewhere, so jaywalk at
your own peril.
We noticed that Australians don't really like anyone using their
brights. Our rental had lousy normal headlights, so I used them
whenever I could, but I'd be flashed at to turn them off even when the
approach car was miles away.
Australia has very tough drunk driving laws (.05% blood alcohol).
They also have "safety stops" where they stop cars at random and
check alertness and sobriety. Don't risk it.
Maps and Signs
Finding where you want to go can be a bit of a challenge. We
(Spring 2003) found a good internet map site. (Google does
okay now, but not perfect) Some areas provided
reasonable maps, but many were not quite accurate. I suggest
going buy good maps when they arrive. (The bookstores in the
terminal in Sydney have excellent maps, unofortunately they are on the
level and few people arriving will notice them.
"official" road signs are pretty good and generally very readable
at night, but one thing to note is that while many areas do have signs
accomodations and attractions, theses are often well off the road,
and hard to read at night, which if you go during the Australian winter
fall much sooner than you expect. My suggestion is make sure
you are going before night falls because trying to figure it out in the
isn't much fun.
Some Places we have visited
If you go, chances are you will come and go from Sydney. It's the
city and has plenty of interest. It's not particularly freindly
cars, so plan on using Taxis, trains, busses, and Ferries.
Quay is a good central location to be in, with a railroad station and
main ferry terminal. Ferries can take you to the beaches as well
the suburbs on both sides of the harbor. One interesting thing to
especially on that first day is the Taronga Zoo, which requires a ferry
ride and is sold as
a package -- Ferry ride, tramway to the top of the zoo, and admission.
zoo has lots of Australian animals, The Ferry ride is always
Harbor cruises are also nice. Adjacent to Circular Quay is
Sydney Opera House, probably more startling when it was built than now
there are many other unusually shaped buildings like this, but still
Tours need to be pre-arranged but you can walk around it and
There is also a very nice botanic garden/park here. If you
go early in the morning and watch the huge bats (fruit eating, don't
settle down in the trees near the middle of the park.
The Rocks area near the bridge is a major tourist area, with historic
old pubs, and shops. The streets become a giant mall under tents
the weekend, probably the largest assortment and best prices on
of all sorts. Hotels in this area are quite expensive, but it is
difficult to stay elsewhere and reach this area by taxi or train.
stayed in an airport hotel)
The Hunter Valley.
This is one of several wine producing regions and is set up for tourism
the wine valleys of California. It's actually better -- like
was years back, unspoiled and unhurried. Tastes are generous and
never found a place that charged, so keep those drunk driving laws in
as you are touring. There is also a very nice cheese factory/shop
Pokolbin. There are several golf courses and a few resorts in the
as well. You could easily spend several days in this area.
This is a very interesting wilderness resort on top of a ridge just
of the Hunter Valley. Guests stay in log lodges and eat breakfast
dinner if you want) in a lodge house. The accomodations and food
first rate, and the views are fantastic. There are lots of
here so you will certainly see them. Also several hiking trails
various lengths and difficulty as well as swimming, tennis, and
activities. It's a long drive up from the Hunter Valley (about an
and a half, though the distance is quite short you have to go a long
around the ridge), and the last few miles are basically a good paved
road that switchbacks up the mountain. Don't do it after dark the
We wound up in Port Macquarie in an emergency -- the hunter valley and
ealgereach experienced major damage and flooding in 2015 and we
narrowly escaped across flooded roads and drove north to Port Macquarie
to escape the storm. It turned out to be a great tourist
destination -- golf courses, nature preserves, two microbreweries, and
a unique Koala hospital, along with beaches, trails, and
restaurants. Well worth a visit.
Gold Coast Area
This is the southernmost coast in Queensland, just wouth of Brisbane.
Gold coast per-se is a beach area like Waikiki or Miami, complete with
rise hotels and a casino. The beaches just to the south and north
just about as nice but much less built up. There are lots of
here and some parks with waterfalls and trails in the mountains behind
coast. We stayed in the Royal Pines, a golf resort back from the
It was nice, not as crowded, and had 27holes of golf. This
is now owned by one of the australian auto clubs, but also caters to
Japanese visitors with a Japanese restaurant and bar in addition
to Australian options. It's a long way from anywhere else though
if you don't have a car or don't want to drive it's hard to go
Another interesting thing to do here is the Carumban wildlife sanctuary
the south end (Very near where route 1 splits with the Gold Coast
and becomes a motorway). This is a visitor participation zoo
there are opportunities to interact with birds, kangaroos, koala's and
wildlife. Wear clothing you wouldn't mind getting dirty.
early for the feeding of the Lorikeets,thousands of tropical
that congregate in trees near the entrance waiting for staff and
to hand feed them with bowls of a milky nectar. Walk in and they
hand you a bowl and before you know it you have dozens of birds
on it, your arms, you head and everywhere else they can. The
can easily take half a day or more.
The Sunshine coast is just North of Brisbane, and less developed than
Gold coast. Wide sand beaches, golf courses, and attractions of
kinds. We liked the Novotel resort, which has a saltwater lagoon
addition to ocean and riverside beaches, plus a golf course.
are lots of options in this area as well though.
There are probably at least a dozen islands off the coast of Queensland
resorts on them where one can stay or just go for a day. Some
close access to the Great Barrier Reef, others just a tropical get
Prices are high to outrageous for most (a couple offer camping, a
bargain). By visiting an island you get away from the Jellyfish
on mainland beaches and gain better access to coral viewing and diving.
Most of the islands can be reached by boat or by small plane or
a couple of scheduled flights. The flights are expensive, but
in mind that the boat trips can be long and some can be fairly rough,
in areas where the island isn't protected by the barrier reef.
are some we visited in 2 trips.
This island is at the southern end of the reef, just barely in the
It is reached by boat or helicopter from Gladstone on the
This is a coral atoll, part of the barrier reef. Snorkeling
diving are fantastic on the outer reef (outside the atoll), which
a short excursion boat from the island resort. You can also walk,
or swim, depending on the tide, in the lagoon, viewing coral and
One end of the Island is a preserve and bird rookery (turtles use
beaches in the Australian summer). The resort is run by the
cruise ship company and all inclusive. When we visited, there
a lot of international visitors here and at least half were there
to dive. You can snorkel from the dive boats as well, and the
is very good, a shear wall of coral reef dropping down hundreds of feet
the lagoon. The water can be a bit cold here in the winter so you
likely need to rent/buy a wetsuit for warmth, especially outside the
Lady Musgrove and Lady Elliot Islands in this area are basically
but have fewer and different visitor facilities.
(Note -- as of 2015, the Brampton Island resort is closed for
renovations, not clear when or whether it will re open. What
follows is from 2003) This is the southernmost of the Whitsunday
islands, off Mackay. It's
a contential island about 700 feet tall and a national park. Thre
nice trails around and up the island (about 10 km total) and many
you can walk to in addition to those fronting the resort. The
adjoins another uninhabited park island and you can walk between them
low tide. (At high tide those sandbars are 12 feet underwater, so
the time!). The extreme tide range here guides water activities,
swimming and boating at high tide, and at low tide walking on sandbars
snorkeling in the reefs in the channel between the island. The
accomodations and food are first rate, again run by P&O. Most
the visitors here were australians, and the resort caters to couples.
have lots of activities, including tennis, a 6 hole pitch/putt golf
boats, hikes, and evening entertainment in the bar. The golf
is basically closely mown tropical weeds, but where else do you get to
through the kangaroos. The island has lots of colorful
You can't easily get to the reef from here -- it's a plane ride
another island, then an hour on a boat, but the local reefs are as nice
most in, say, Hawaii. A couple of cautions about the boat ride to
island -- the dock is a bit hard to find (it goes from a marina,
to the Mackay Harbor, which isn't in Mackay but about 3 miles north
a river. The second is that the ride can be quite rough. We
warned of this by another couple boarding the boat in Mackay, and while
outgoing ride was a little bumpy it didn't seem too bad. Coming
we were in 6-8 foot waves in a relatively small boat and it was rough
that at least half the passengers got sick. I don't know how
those conditions are.
This is another Atoll on the reef near Cairns. It has both a
hotel on the island (high end, very nice), and an area for day
trippers, as well as a wildlife show park and a national park with
walks. (A lot in a very small island). The island has good
snorkeling off the beaches as well as organized dive/snorkel trips and
glass bottom viewing. You can get trips to other outer reef areas
from here as well. The convenience and beauty here are
nice. The fact that there are something like 2,000 visitors here
a day (many Chinese in tours) makes it a bit of a zoo during the
day. Resort guests get free beach and snorkel equipment, glass
bottom boat tours, and many other amenities though and it's delighful
after the lst boat leaves for Cairns for the day. (Note that
there is an interesting show at breakfast. one of the Egrets on
the island has a taste for sausage and bacon. He's unbelievably
fast and bold about it so Anyone sitting outside, as most do, is
vulnerable, and it's almost ipossible to fend him off. "Sausage"
invariably gets something and then spends the rest of breakfast trying
to get it down.
The Cairns and Port douglas area (actually about 40 miles of winding
apart) is the base for rainforest and reef trips for most people.
is a largish city with both commercial and resort development. It
a boat harbor but no real beach, but it does have the best assortment
shopping and dining in the area. Port Douglas is a much smaller
mostly resort development. It has both beaches and a harbor
the beach here has Jellyfish in the summer). In between are
small beach developments including Palm Cove, where we stayed.
was nice, somewhat isolated, with a nice beach and boardwalk and a few
shops and restaurants along with condos and hotel rooms. A
kind of place, which Cairns really isn't. You can take reef trips
Cairns, Port Douglas or Palm Cove with the greatest variety in Port
and Cairns. The Paradise Palms resort near Palm Cove is also a
nice isolate place, especially if you like golf.
The Great Barrier Reef
If you have been snorkeling or diving elsewhere and think you've seen
all, don't miss this. It's like nothing else we have seen in many
(water clarity, variety of species, profusion of corals, etc.).
reef stretches for a thousand miles along the coast, about 50-100 miles
shore, requiring a 2-3 hour boat trip to reach. There are some
that get you closer and a couple of operators of multi-day cruises in
reef, but most people do day trips. The tour operators say the
is better the farther north you go (clearer water due to less
and sediment washed into the rivers). There are many different
out of Cairns and Port Douglas
This company has been at it for years and probably has the largest
The boats take you to platforms at the reef where you can
dive, or take trips in their semi-submersibles (basically a boat with a
windowed hull where you view just under the water.) Their big
are the most stable and they have excellent food, but you don't get
personalized attention on those tours.
This boat operates out of Port Douglas and is a smaller catamaran
to both divers and snorkelers. They tie up at various points
the reef (3 different spots on a trip), so you get to see different
of the reef. It's a great place for learners because it isn't
big. Introductory diving seemed inexpensive there compared to
I remember, though we didn't try it (you aren't supposed to dive and
fly the next day). Because it's a smaller boat, food is a bit
lavish and the ride a little rougher, but not really bumpy.
Some of the operators go to this and other sand islands on the reef.
was a very interesting trip because the island has nesting birds, and
reef around the island is a bit different from the free standing reefs.
saw lots of huge clams here.