Australia is huge—seriously, look at a map of it on scale with a map of Europe or the U.S. and you will see; it’s just freaking enormous. Before we took off for an 18-month sojourn around the States, we might have assumed two weeks in a different country is a good amount of time to “see” it. And, of course, some countries would certainly be easier to get a good sense of in that amount of time—Liechtenstein comes to mind—but for the most part, and certainly in the case of Australia, we feel like we need a good year to really explore a new place
Which amount of time, of course, we didn't have. Though it absolutely crossed our minds to move Down Under for an antipodal version of our U.S. trip. Maybe someday! For this trip, though, we decided not to bite off too big a geographical chunk and keep our explorations just around Sydney and Melbourne.
You could do much worse for vibrant, gorgeous, culture-packed cosmopolitan centers. We loved both cities and fell in love with plenty of places in and between them. Instead of giving a play-by-play of our Oz visit, we thought we’d just give you a taste of ten of our favorite places we saw.
1. Australia excels at wildlife. For unique creatures, you cannot find a better place on Earth. We heard tales of kangaroos rampant as squirrels and trails littered with life-threatening snakes. We lucked out in not seeing anything venomous; we also had pretty bad kangaroo luck (we only saw a few in our two weeks, excepting the zoo ‘roos). Our best wildlife experience was with koalas, aka, the cutest animals on the planet. For our koala experience, we took the (very short) ferry ride to Raymond Island, off the southern coast. It’s a residential island that hosts a booming population of koalas in its gum trees; we saw dozens, most of them fast asleep and high in the trees. It was an immense thrill seeing these little guys in the wild. We saw more koalas in the forests around the southern coast, but they were random sightings and usually far away, so Raymond Island stands out as our wildlife highlight.
2. And speaking of wildlife…Sydney boasts what I think must be one of the most beautiful zoos in the world, Taronga Zoo. High on a hill above Sydney Harbour, with incredible views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, the zoo is full of lovely terraces that take advantage of the scenery. Your ticket includes a ride on the funicular that shuttles ferry passengers up from the water; we didn’t take the ferry because we had a car, but we rode the funicular anyway and loved the birds’ eye view of the elephant enclosure and the harbor. The zoo has terrific exhibits on a wide range of animals, but for people without kids who might not typically spend a travel day at a zoo, we still think Taronga is worth a visit for the chance to see and learn more about Australian animals.
3. Sydney’s harbor is so iconic, so utterly known by about every person on the planet, that seeing it in person feels almost like seeing an old friend. The design for the opera house was chosen through a contest; the design by Jorn Utzon was initially passed over, then later pulled from the pile of rejects and chosen as the winner. It was a drawn-out, controversial project, but now it makes Sydney one of the most immediately recognizable cities in the world. We loved checking out the Opera House up close—the pattern of the tiles is beautiful!—but the view from the water is even better. The ferry to Taronga Zoo will give you an extraordinary look at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge set against the backdrop of the city; we’d also highly recommend the ferry to Manly for its views of the harbor and the rugged coastline around Sydney, as well as to check out the cute town of Manly itself. Manly was named by an early European explorer after the beefalicious hunkiness of its residents, surely one of the best provences of a place name ever.
4. And speaking of beefalicious hunkiness: Sydney’s beaches are still covered in some pretty good specimens. After a day spent beach-hopping around Manly, Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte and Coogee, David turned to me and said, “Is it just me, or are the people here abnormally good-looking?” It was not just him. But we weren’t at the beaches to ogle, we were there to swim! And swim we did. The ocean around Sydney’s beaches is more suited for surfing than for swimming with kids, but many of them have pools adjacent that are fed by the ocean water. Swimming around right next to the ocean, with waves sometimes crashing over the sides of the pool and all the good smells and feels of the beach, but without worrying about big waves and undertows is so dang pleasant. When we got tired of swimming, we played in the sand, which is so soft and fine, it squeaks when you walk on it.
5. Just south of Sydney lies Australia’s oldest national park and the second-oldest national park in the world, Royal National Park. Australia has approximately one million national parks, and they run the gamut, from large protected areas with visitor’s centers and extensive trail systems to small stretches along the highway with only a few signs and a trail or two. Royal is of the former type and is such a historic spot, we had to give it a visit on our way down to Melbourne. The park is beautiful, filled with bush walks and coastal scenery. Our favorite spot was Wattamolla Lagoon. A short hike leads from a parking lot down to a beautiful freshwater river, a wide lagoon and, farther on, a secluded crescent of soft sand beach.
6. A major highlight of our Australia visit was driving along the Great Ocean Road. The GOR stretches along the southeastern coast of Australia, with sweeping views, cliffs and curves and pounding surf on one side, and lush bush on the other. It is absolutely breaktaking. One of our favorite spots was Loch Ard Gorge, an inlet formed by waves molding the sandstone into gorgeous cliffs and a crescent of exquisite beach. The waves coming in from the ocean crash through the inlet so forcefully that the splash shoots dozens of feet in the air—the sound is fantastic and the sight mesmerizing. We went early in the morning after spending the evening before at the Twelve Apostles. These sandstone pillars just off the coast comprise one of the most picturesque views in the world. I could not stop crying while we watched the sun set over the ocean behind the formations—I just felt immensely lucky and glad to be there. We stuck around after everyone had gone to watch a colony of tiny penguins return to shore after their day of fishing; they washed up on their bellies and waddled up the beach and it was about the cutest thing ever.
7. There are lots of places along the Great Ocean Road to pull off for a bit of hiking and wildlife spotting. We did a little hike down to Erskine Falls—there were lots of other people there (it was Easter holiday), but it was just gorgeous. We didn’t do a lot of hiking in Australia, so we were glad to get this little tramp in so we could see more of the bush. And it’s always delightful to get out of the car and let the kids run around, scramble around on rocks and climb trees. Those little breaks, simple as they are, are always a highlight for us!
8. Australia felt to us very culturally familiar—it was like a friendly and sunny Britain, or jocular California with accents. Sometimes it was hard to remember we were on the opposite side of the world. What impressed the distance and foreignness on us were the plants—Australia’s ecology is unlike anywhere else on Earth and, especially after spending the past year learning more about the plants and animals of America, we were blown away by the variety and strangeness of Australia’s flora. One of our favorite places to explore it was in the Botanical Gardens of Sydney and Melbourne. Both are excellent and full of examples of this country’s unique plant varieties; both are also incredibly pleasant for a stroll and a picnic, like Central Park on steroids and with way better grass.
9. We love, love, love nature, but we’re also huge fans of city life and Melbourne in particular knocked our socks off. We spent a few days wandering around this calm and clean city and found many things to love, but our favorite was the National Gallery of Victoria. David is always up for an art museum; I love a museum, too, but don’t usually last as long, and the kids have even shorter attention spans. So when I say how much we all loved NGV, that’s really saying something. This place is incredibly well-paced and full of exhibits that invite participation and engagement. Even the kids were entertained, and we spent the better part of a day exploring here.
10. Another highlight of Melbourne: the food. We had some excellent food in Australia. Sydney is no slouch when it comes to culinary delights, but Melbourne was the real star of the show for our tums. Two of our favorite food experiences (and they were very much experiences) were Chin Chin and Lune. Lune is a bakery that specializes in all things laminated dough (which translates to flaky, buttery, delicious baked goods.) We stood in line for nearly an hour to try the croissants and quinn amonn, and it was worth every minute. As good as the pastries themselves was the experience of the shop: all the baking goes on behind glass walls and the seats are mostly positioned so you can watch things get rolled out and shaped. Two of my favorite things—odd as it sounds to have them juxtaposed thusly—are dough and assembly lines: Lune had both and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. You know, of course, about our devotion to pastry, but our other big food love is tasting menus. When we went to Copenhagen, we had the most delicious (and expensive!) meal of our lives at one of the top-rated restaurants in the world, Geranium, and having those small, perfect dishes brought out one by one from the kitchen is still one of my favorite food memories. Chin Chin has a “Feed Me” option on the menu where, for a set price of $60 (a very pricey meal, but consider it your entertainment for the night too!) the chef will send you down loads of dishes to try. IT. WAS. EXCELLENT. One of our dishes was a fried rice that is legitimately one of the best things I’ve ever put into my mouth. I casually told our waiter that I was fine with spicy things—true in theory, not always in practice—and some of our dishes were quite hot, which caused me to drink a ton of water, and I truly have never felt so full in my life. I actually had to go to the bathroom for a mild vomit before I could move on to dessert. And I realize that sounds atrocious—I certainly wouldn’t advocate it as a good habit to get into—but let’s just chalk it up to an intense dining experience and a lesson learned: when eating mass quantities of food, make sure it’s not so spicy that you drink a gallon of water and run out of room in your belly.
So that’s it—some of our favorite sights (and tastes!) from this gorgeous, happy part of the world! If ever we move abroad, Australia is going to be one of our top choices for sure—in spite of the deadly critters, it just seems like an emminently livable, fun and scenic country.