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.  

Getting there

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 big leap from coach, and gives you at least some chance of getting some sleep.  From the US, you will probably depart LA or San Francisco late in the evening and arrive in Australia very early in the morning a day and a half later, after a 14 hour flight.  (The international date line adds a day.)  Some folks advise trying to break up the flight with a stop in, say, Hawaii, but I'm not sure this is wise.  14 hours, all at night 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 standard and vice versa.  Queensland doesn't change time).  Best advice is to dump those bags in the hotel when you arrive and plan to spend the first day outside in the sun.  After a long day out and an early night, 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 you 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 are most likely to  have trouble with is turning on your windsheild wipers when you go to signal a turn.  Locals say it's a sure way to spot an American tourist.  After driving that way for 2 weeks of course you 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 going to be different.  Left turns won't see that hard, but right turns may surprise you.  Be sure to pull onto the left side of the road when turning right.  They obviously are aware of the problem as you will find islands with "keep left" signs everywhere (just like in Monty Python, except they 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, and 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 drivers.  

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 curves or hills.   Minor roads can be narrow.  Speed limits are 100km/hour on most country roads (62Mph), and 60km/hour in towns (40mph), with stretches of 110km/hour (68) on motorways and good roads in unpopulated areas.  Most urban areas are bypassed on major highways, allowing you to avoid having to navigate those narrow streets.  (This isn't always true, though, there is no effective way to go from the Sydney airport on the south side of town to the pacific coast highway towards the north without a fair amount of city streets).  You can, though count on being able to make good time on major roads and generally avoid city traffic.  There are few 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.  Keep left 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.

Traffic laws

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 Wales (Sydney) uses radar equipped cameras to enforce speed limits and catch red light runners. We noticed signs warning of the cameras in all areas where 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 hadn't (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 anyone going buy good maps when they arrive.  (The bookstores in the international terminal in Sydney have excellent maps, unofortunately they are on the departure level and few people arriving will notice them.  

"official" road signs are pretty good and generally  very readable even at night, but one thing to note is that while many areas do have signs for accomodations and attractions, theses are often well off the road, unlit, and hard to read at night, which if you go during the Australian winter will fall much sooner than you expect.  My suggestion is make sure where you are going before night falls because trying to figure it out in the dark isn't much fun.

Some Places we have visited


If you go, chances are you will come and go from Sydney.  It's the largest city and has plenty of interest.  It's not particularly freindly to cars, so plan on using Taxis, trains, busses, and Ferries.  Circular Quay is a good central location to be in, with a railroad station and the main ferry terminal.  Ferries can take you to the beaches as well as the suburbs on both sides of the harbor.  One interesting thing to do, 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.  The zoo has lots of Australian animals,   The Ferry ride is always fun.  Harbor cruises are also nice.  Adjacent to Circular Quay is the Sydney Opera House, probably more startling when it was built than now that there are many other unusually shaped buildings like this, but still interesting.  Tours need to be pre-arranged but you can walk around it and galk.  There is also a very nice botanic garden/park here.  If you go go early in the morning and watch the huge bats (fruit eating, don't worry) settle down in the trees near the middle of the park.  

The Rocks area near the bridge is a major tourist area, with historic buildings, old pubs, and shops.  The streets become a giant mall under tents on the weekend, probably the largest assortment and best prices on souvenirs of all sorts.  Hotels in this area are quite expensive, but it is not difficult to stay elsewhere and reach this area by taxi or train.  (We stayed in an airport hotel)

The Hunter Valley.

This is one of several wine producing regions and is set up for tourism like the wine valleys of California.  It's actually better -- like California was years back, unspoiled and unhurried.  Tastes are generous and we never found a place that charged, so keep those drunk driving laws in mind as you are touring.  There is also a very nice cheese factory/shop in Pokolbin.  There are several golf courses and a few resorts in the Valley as well.  You could easily spend several days in this area.

EagleReach Resort

This is a very interesting wilderness resort on top of a ridge just north of the Hunter Valley.  Guests stay in log lodges and eat breakfast (and dinner if you want) in a lodge house.  The accomodations and food are first rate, and the views are fantastic.  There are lots of kangaroos here so you will certainly see them.  Also several hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty  as well as swimming, tennis, and other activities.  It's a long drive up from the Hunter Valley (about an hour and a half, though the distance is quite short you have to go a long way around the ridge), and the last few miles are basically a good paved 1-lane road that switchbacks up the mountain.  Don't do it after dark the first time.

Port Macquarie

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.  The Gold coast per-se is a beach area like Waikiki or Miami, complete with high rise hotels and a casino.  The beaches just to the south and north are just about as nice but much less built up.  There are lots of activities here and some parks with waterfalls and trails in the mountains behind the coast.  We stayed in the Royal Pines, a golf resort back from the beach.  It was nice, not as crowded, and had 27holes of golf.  This resort 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 so if you don't have a car or don't want to drive it's hard to go elsewhere for meals.

Another interesting thing to do here is the Carumban wildlife sanctuary at the south end (Very near where route 1 splits with the Gold Coast highway and becomes a motorway).  This is a visitor participation zoo where there are opportunities to interact with birds, kangaroos, koala's and other wildlife.  Wear clothing you wouldn't mind getting dirty.  Come early for the feeding of the Lorikeets,thousands of  tropical parrots that congregate in trees near the entrance waiting for staff and visitors to hand feed them with bowls of a milky nectar.  Walk in and they will hand you a bowl and before you know it you have dozens of birds perching on it, your arms, you head and everywhere else they can.  The sanctuary can easily take half a day or more.

Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine coast is just North of Brisbane, and less developed than the Gold coast.  Wide sand beaches, golf courses, and attractions of all kinds.  We liked the Novotel resort, which has a saltwater lagoon in addition to ocean and riverside beaches, plus a golf course.  There are lots of options in this area as well though.  

Queensland Islands

There are probably at least a dozen islands off the coast of Queensland with resorts on them where one can stay or just go for a day.  Some offer close access to the Great Barrier Reef, others just a tropical get away.  Prices are high to outrageous for most (a couple offer camping, a real bargain).  By visiting an island you get away from the Jellyfish problem 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 helicopter, a couple of scheduled flights.  The flights are expensive, but keep in mind that the boat trips can be long and some can be fairly rough, particularly in areas where the island isn't protected by the barrier reef.  Here are some we visited in 2 trips.

Heron Island

This island is at the southern end of the reef, just barely in the tropics.  It is reached by boat or helicopter from Gladstone on the mainland.  This is a coral atoll, part of the barrier reef.  Snorkeling and diving are fantastic on the outer reef (outside the atoll), which requires a short excursion boat from the island resort.  You can also walk, wade or swim, depending on the tide, in the lagoon, viewing coral and tidepools.  One end of the Island is a preserve and bird rookery (turtles use the beaches in the Australian summer).  The resort is run by the P&O cruise ship company and all inclusive.  When we visited, there were a lot of international visitors here and at least half were there specifically to dive.  You can snorkel from the dive boats as well, and the view is very good, a shear wall of coral reef dropping down hundreds of feet outside the lagoon.  The water can be a bit cold here in the winter so you will likely need to rent/buy a wetsuit for warmth, especially outside the lagoon.

Lady Musgrove and Lady Elliot Islands in this area are basically similar but have fewer and different visitor facilities.

Brampton Island

(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 are nice trails around and up the island (about 10 km total) and many beaches you can walk to in addition to those fronting the resort.  The island adjoins another uninhabited park island and you can walk between them at low tide.  (At high tide those sandbars are 12 feet underwater, so watch the time!).  The extreme tide range here guides water activities, with swimming and boating at high tide, and at low tide walking on sandbars and snorkeling in the reefs in the channel between the island.  The resort accomodations and food are first rate, again run by P&O.  Most of the visitors here were australians, and the resort caters to couples.  They have lots of activities, including tennis, a 6 hole pitch/putt golf course, boats, hikes, and evening entertainment in the bar.  The golf course is basically closely mown tropical weeds, but where else do you get to play through the kangaroos.  The island has lots of colorful butterflies.  You can't easily get to the reef from here -- it's a plane ride to another island, then an hour on a boat, but the local reefs are as nice as most in, say, Hawaii.  A couple of cautions about the boat ride to the island -- the dock is a bit hard to find (it goes from a marina, adjacent to the Mackay Harbor, which isn't in Mackay but about 3 miles north accross a river.  The second is that the ride can be quite rough.  We were warned of this by another couple boarding the boat in Mackay, and while the outgoing ride was a little bumpy it didn't seem too bad.  Coming back we were in 6-8 foot waves in a relatively small boat and it was rough enough that at least half the passengers got sick.  I don't know how common those conditions are.

Green Island

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.

Cairns/Port Douglas

The Cairns and Port douglas area (actually about 40 miles of winding road apart) is the base for rainforest and reef trips for most people.  Cairnes is a largish city with both commercial and resort development.  It has a boat harbor but no real beach, but it does have the best assortment of shopping and dining in the area.  Port Douglas is a much smaller town, mostly resort development.  It has both beaches and a harbor (though the beach here  has Jellyfish in the summer).  In between are several small beach developments including Palm Cove, where we stayed.  This was nice, somewhat isolated, with a nice beach and boardwalk and a few small shops and restaurants along with condos and hotel rooms.  A relaxing kind of place, which Cairns really isn't.  You can take reef trips from Cairns, Port Douglas or Palm Cove with the greatest variety in Port Douglas 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 it all, don't miss this.  It's like nothing else we have seen in many ways (water clarity, variety of species, profusion of corals, etc.).  The reef stretches for a thousand miles along the coast, about 50-100 miles off shore, requiring a 2-3 hour boat trip to reach.  There are some islands that get you closer and a couple of operators of multi-day cruises in the reef, but most people do day trips.  The tour operators say the reef is better the farther north you go (clearer water due to less development and sediment washed into the rivers).  There are many different operators out of Cairns and Port Douglas


This company has been at it for years and probably has the largest fleets.  The boats take you to platforms at the reef where you can snorkel, dive, or take trips in their semi-submersibles (basically a boat with a glass windowed hull where you view just under the water.)  Their big boats are the most stable and they have excellent food, but you don't get much personalized attention on those tours.


This boat operates out of Port Douglas and is a smaller catamaran catering to both divers and snorkelers.  They tie up at various points along the reef (3 different spots on a trip), so you get to see different parts of the reef.  It's a great place for learners because it isn't that big.  Introductory diving seemed inexpensive there compared to what I remember, though we didn't try it (you aren't supposed to dive and then fly the next day).  Because it's a smaller boat, food is a bit less lavish and the ride a little rougher, but not really bumpy.  

Michaelmas Cay

Some of the operators go to this and other sand islands on the reef.  This was a very interesting trip because the island has nesting birds, and the reef around the island is a bit different from the free standing reefs.  We saw lots of huge clams here.