Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cairns - The Daintree Tropical Rainforest - A First Timer's Journey

In June of 1770, Captain James Cook and his crew were exploring the Australian coastline, and the Great Barrier Reef about 110 Kms (65 mi) to the north of where Cairns is today.  They turned seawards into what they thought was deeper water to avoid a large point of land. Bam!  They ran aground on the Endeavour Reef,  having just discovered it by punching a hole in the bottom of their boat.  They named it Endeavour Reef after their unfortunate ship -  It really ruined their day!  They managed to stay afloat and headed for shore to beach the Endeavour for repairs.  It took a while, but they fixed the hole, then sailed on. They named the cape that caused the whole incident Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is at the northern end of the Daintree Rainforest.  The dark green of the rainforest runs straight into the blue of the Coral Sea. The Daintree Rainforest stretches from Mossman Gorge to Cape Tribulation. Check it out on the map.  It is a place of steep mountains, deep gorges, high rainfall, flood prone rivers, and incredible plant and animal bio-diversity. Walking along the nature trails is like being in a huge, leafy, green cathedral.  Moist air, everything drippy and wet, tall trees, jungle vines trailing, and a carpet of dead leaves and twigs.

Daintree Rainforest
The plant species in the Daintree are very ancient. They include types of ferns and trees that date back before the dinosaurs, up to 135 million years ago. The Daintree is home to 30% of the reptile, frog and marsupial species in Australia, 18% of the birds (over 400 species), 65% of the bats and butterflies and over 12,000 types of insects.  And all of this bio-diversity is crammed into an area under 1% of Australia. Now this is the place to go bird, bat and nature watching!

When Captain Cook ran aground in 1770, you can be sure the local Kuku Yulanji Aboriginal tribe who had been living in the Daintree River area for over 9,000 years knew about it.  They would also have seen the white man rush for gold in the 1870's as the Daintree Village was founded to supply the miners.  One of their descendants, Juan Williams, runs  Walkabout Cultural Adventures out of Daintree - his tours are worth checking out for an authentic experience. Another Aboriginal Cultural Daintree Rainforest Tour leaves Cairns and Port Douglas also.

As an alternative, to really discover the Daintree on your own, rent a car, then stay a few nights in the Daintree Village area and get to meet some of the locals.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cairns - Snorkeling The Great Barrier Reef - A First Timer's Journey

The use of a snorkel to breathe underwater has been around for 3,000 years - there are records showing the use of hollow reeds as breathing tubes, a far cry from the beautiful plastic and silicone snorkels of today!  Add modern materials to the production of face masks and fins, and you have the modern snorkel kit used on the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Snorkel Gear is included on good Reef Trips.

Coral Reef
If you are a first time visitor to the reef, it might also be your first time snorkeling. It is not hard, it just requires a leap of faith.  I reckon that those who have snorkeled well remember when we first strapped on the mask and snorkel, put our face under the surface, and got up the courage to do the impossible - breathe in underwater. After that? Easy.

The Great Barrier Reef is immense - it stretches 2,600 Kms (1,600 mi) down the east coast of Queensland, contains 2,900 reefs and 900 islands.  Look at a map of the Great Barrier Reef  to really throw it into perspective.

Coral only increases the size of a reef about 1 - 3 Cm (.39 - 1.2 in) a year, and it forms very fragile ecosystems, requiring strict conservation. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was set up in 1975 to regulate the 30 reef and 40 non-reef Bioregions that make up the Reef, and it was created a world Heritage Site in 1981. The permanent Great Barrier Reef marine Park Authority says where you can anchor and controls general use.
The Great Barrier Reef
Make sure you have booked a Reef Trip ahead of time - the best ones sell out in busy periods -  grab your swimming trunks and towel and head off to the Cairns Marina for a day offshore. You will have to go about 50 Kms (30 mi) out to get to the outer Reef where the best coral is found. Some boats go to a pontoon that is moored over the Reef in fairly open water, and some go to Sand Cays (islands) that allow you to go ashore and snorkel from a beach as well as in deeper water.

Have a great day out on the Reef, but don't make the mistake of leaving your camera or sunscreen back at the hotel.  


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cairns - Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef - A First Timer's Journey

Gold! Who'd have thought it? Gold?

Cairns was settled in 1876 as the hopefuls headed inland to the Hodgkinson River an the last days of the Australian Gold Rush. The fever died out, but Cairns remained, slowly becoming the biggest town in the area, and the centre of a huge sugar cane growing industry. Have a look at the Map of Cairns and the Map of the Great Barrier Reef to get your bearings.

Then along came tourism, the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975 and the opening of the International Airport in 1984, all of which have made Cairns a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns City is about 2,700 Kms (1,670 mi) north of Sydney by road, and 1,700 Kms (1,050 mi) north of Brisbane, so if you are thinking of driving it, leave more than a couple of days just to get there. On your first trip to Australia, you will probably arrive into Cairns by air. As you land, it's water to the east - bright blue on sunny days, and steel gray when its overcast - and a heavy green vegetation climbing the hills to the west, rising to an escarpment of higher land inland. This is the tropics, and it rains a lot, even though it is usually warm.
Cairns Esplanade Pier
The airport is north of the main Downtown area and the Marina, near the Northern Beaches. More on the Northern Beaches in another post, but check out Trinity Beach, Yorkey's Knob, Kewarra Beach, Clifton Beach and Palm Cove for your hotels and accommodation in Cairns area. This gets you out of town and close to the water on a really nice beach.
Palm Cove Beach
While Cairns downtown has the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, restaurants, cafes, buzz and lots of people, it does not have a really good beach. It actually does not have a beach at all. During WW2, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Trinity River entrance to allow barges with supplies into the port, and messed up the tidal flow of the area. The beach turned into mud flats. Great for wading birds, and birdwatching, but not good for swimming. There has been an attempt to turn the esplanade back into a beach by dumping a lot of sand there, but it has not been more than cosmetically successful. If you want to walk a beach with the Coral Sea lapping at your feet, do it on the Northern Beaches.

Downtown, however, is where the Marina is located, and it is from here that we will leave on our expedition to snorkel and dive the Great Barrier Reef in my next post. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sydney - The Rocks to Bondi Beach by Bus - A First Timer's Journey

Wandering around a big Australian city on your own, at your own speed, is a real blast. Nothing makes you feel like you really know your stuff - "Hey. I'm doing this independently" - like a day zipping around Sydney and the suburbs on the way to Bondi Beach.

Big problem, however: How do you get from the Rocks to Bondi Beach by bus without losing your way, ending up in the wrong place and generally screwing up the outing? Easy: Let the Hop-on, Hop-off Bus do the navigating - you just decide where to get on and then get off again.

OK, so let's start by looking at the map of Sydney again. Bondi Beach is just to the east of downtown, the Rocks and the Sydney Opera House.
Bondi Beach
How do we do this? First you buy a Sydney and Bondi Hop-on Hop-off Tour ticket. This will give you up to 24 hours continuous riding over two different tour routes on their bright red, open topped, double decker bus. Sit up the top for the best views. A warm, wind proof jacket is always a good idea.

Start off at Stop 1 of the Sydney Explorer at Circular Quay - you can either take the full route, or you can change straight onto the Bondi and Bays Explorer at William Street (Stop 5) - or at Central Station (Stop 14).  Get off at the Bondi Beach Terminal.

As one of Australia's surfing icons, Bondi is not just sand, surf and people, it is home to a whole local beach culture. A couple of hours wandering Campbell Parade along the beachfront will leave some lasting impressions. Great pubs, bars restaurants and shops.  Don't miss it!  And for your first day at an Aussie Beach, how about some surfing lessons?

Hotel Bondi
Hotel Bondi - Campbell Parade - Find a Hotel in Bondi Beach

The trip back to the city will take you along the clifftops through Dover Heights - great views out onto the Pacific, and back to the City over Sydney Harbour.  

Take as long as you like - is this the way to see Sydney and Bondi Beach, or what?

See you next time.  Even though we could spend months in Sydney alone, I'm going to move around Australia randomly from now on.  Next post, let's check out Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.   Stay tuned. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sydney - Walk the Sydney Domain Foreshore - A First Timer's Journey

Today, let's take a walk along the foreshore path between the Sydney Opera House and Mrs Macquarie's Chair.  Get a map of Sydney and look at the area between the Opera House and the next point of land to the east - Macquarie Point.

But, what on earth is Mrs Macquarie's Chair?  Back in 1810, the wife of the Australian Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, used to like sitting out on Macquarie Point near Government House, watching the shipping in Sydney Harbour.  A bit like watching TV today. To make it more comfortable, the Governor got some Convicts to carve a chair out of the solid rock on the point.  Hence the name.  The chair is still there, and it's not any more comfortable today than it must have been then.

Macquarie Point is a great place for getting photos of the Opera House with the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge behind it. 

Farm Cove foreshore
Between the Opera House and Mrs Macquarie's Chair is Farm Cove. There is a great walk around Farm Cove on a foreshore path that takes about an hour return. From the Opera House, follow the foreshore east. Very scenic, great photos.  Not good in the rain, so go on a fine day. 

Leaving Macquarie Point, take the lower path between the foreshore path and Mrs Macquarie's Road and walk northwest back towards the city. You will see the high rise buildings behind the trees. This area is called The Domain, and is a very popular place for picnics, open air concerts and events.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Have a look through the Royal Botanical Gardens. The Gardens are uphill, adjacent to Downtown. You'll see some weird looking "parcels" hanging from the trees, These are Grey Headed Flying Foxes, also known as Fruit Bats - half fox (the front half) and half bat. They're not local, but have moved in and formed a colony in the Gardens.

Fruit Bats hanging from the trees
Flying Fox/Fruit Bat
With a wing span of about 1 meter (3 feet), they are grotesque. If disturbed, and near sunset, they make an unbelievable noise. They have been destroying a lot of the trees in the Gardens and the authorities are trying to remove them  Good luck with that!

After checking out the Flying Foxes and the Gardens, cross onto Macquarie Street, and walk back downhill to the Opera House.

Next Post we will head off to Bondi Beach on the Hop-on, Hop-off bus. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sydney - The Sydney Opera House - A First Timer's Journey

It's your first day in this iconic Australian city. You want to see and feel the Sydney Opera House. No need for a car in Sydney - it's a bit like hiring  a car in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris or London - it costs more to park than it's worth.  We are going to walk from our hotel.   Let's check a map of Sydney for the exact location.

Look at the picture below. The Opera House is on a point of land sticking out beside Circular Quay (pronounced "Key"), where all the ferries leave from. If you can't see the Opera House from Circular Quay, you are in real trouble, or you have a serious case of jet lag and should go back to bed. 

Designed by Danish Architect, Jorn Utzon, the Opera House took years to build and was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973.  Like plenty of other projects, it came in late and way over budget.

Walk right around the front, smell the air (it has an indefinable "Sydney" smell about it - moist, salty, hint of diesel), feel the breeze, listen to the hum of the bridge and the city.  Then take one of the Sydney Opera House tours to look through. This is not just one big, single Opera Hall, it is actually a number of performance areas of varying size and function. It is well worth a look through the inside and getting backstage.

After the tour, just sit at one of the many cafes of restaurants beside the Opera House and soak in Sydney.

"Sails" of the Opera House

Why do the "Sails" of the Opera House gleam in the sun? When you get close, look directly up along the curve of the "Sails". They are covered with thousands of single tiles. The tiles alternate from glossy white to matte cream.  No wonder they seem to change colour depending on the time of day and the weather.

So, how do you book to see a show? Easy. You can book directly online and then pick up your tickets at will-call.

More information on the Sydney Opera House? - Check Wikipedia.

Next post, we'll take a walk through a real suburban oasis - the Sydney Botanical Gardens.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sydney - Such a City - A First Timer's Journey

As the plane banks over Sydney for the run into landing, other first time visitors crane their necks to glimpse the harbour, the Opera House and the Bridge. If you are arriving from overseas, the long flight is over and the adrenalin is flowing. Sydney has come a long way since the first settlers ended their six month journey from Europe to Australia in 1788 and started building what is now one of the World's most exciting cities. So, how long was that plane flight again?

Heading in from the airport, the first impression is bustle, energy and activity. Sydneysiders seem a happy lot, and they move quickly. The trees look almost tropical - broad leaves and obviously well watered - Sydney has a pretty high annual rainfall (1,213mm, or 47 inches) and averages about 10 rainy days a month. Rainfall and rainy days are spread evenly throughout the year. An umbrella is not a bad idea in Sydney.

To be in the thick of things, the best place to have your Sydney hotel is within a Kilometre of Circular Quay. The ferries are nearby, buses and trains leave for all parts of the city and some of the best restaurants are within walking distance.

Aerial View of Sydney
Check out the picture above and refer to a map of Sydney. You can see Circular Quay, with the Opera House on the left, the Bridge is in the centre, and the Downtown Central Business District in the top left hand corner. Darling Harbour is to the right of the CBD. The ferry to Darling Harbour from Circular Quay goes under the Bridge and loops around to the Casino, the Maritime Museum, the Aquarium and the Wildlife Sydney Zoo.

Check in to the hotel, and then check out the area.

Stay tuned as we journey around the Land Downunder for your first time... 

New Author

Well, I've been a bit slack here lately and haven't been keeping up with my posts.  So, one of my colleagues, Matt, has volunteered to contribute to the blog with a series on "Australia & Tasmania - A First Timer's Journey".  He intends to take you on a trip around OZ as seen through the eyes of a first time visitor.  For those of you who have already been, hopefully it will stir some great memories (and make you want to travel back there again!)

Matt works in the Custom Travel Planning Division at &, so he really knows his stuff.  He's certainly been there, done that, and has the t-shirt to prove it!

I hope you will sit back, relax, and enjoy being taken on a verbal tour of Australia, one step at a time.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Aussie Slang

Don't forget to check out my separate Slang page - updated once a week.  You can access it from the menu bar at the top, or click here.

In my ongoing effort to inform/educate you about all things Australian, I have decided to do a slang word/phrase of the week.  I'll pick a word or phrase, give its definition and then use it in a sentence so that you can get the context.  To help keep everything together, I've created a separate Slang page for this.  So, tune in once a week - you might learn something, and hopefully you'll get a laugh out of it too!  If you've heard a word or phrase that you didn't know, please leave me a comment so that I can include it in future posts.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Recently, I came across an application that makes sharing your holiday snaps with friends and family really easy, and better yet, it's free (although there is a premium edition that you can pay for with more bells and whistles).  It's called Smilebox.  Easy to use, easy to share, and no more clogging up your friend's email with huge attachments.

Some happy travellers who utilized the services of our Custom Travel Planning department were kind enough to share some of their Smileboxes with us, to show everyone what a fabulous time they had on their recent adventure.  You'll get a chance so see some true Australian landscapes and wildlife.

Here is Melbourne:
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Here's one from Kangaroo Island -- lots of GREAT wildlife shots in this one.
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This one is from Uluru Ayers Rock.  Some really great landscapes, along with flora and fauna.
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From the red centre, to the blue ocean....check out the Great Barrier Reef.
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Sunday, September 9, 2012


Brisbane, or Brissy to most locals, is the capital of the state of Queensland, and the 3rd most populous city in Australia.  The Brisbane River, after which the city was named, snakes its way through the area, out past the airport and into Moreton Bay.
Brisbane at dusk

With a nice-sized international airport, Brisbane is an easy place to get to with plenty of non-stop international flight options available from many countries.  From the airport, you can catch a train to the city centre, or south to the Gold Coast.  There is an extensive rail network in the city and surrounding suburbs, that also connects the larger coastal cities together (and some of the inland towns).  The CBD is laid out in a grid pattern, with the streets named for the Royal Family; Queen Street being the main one (naturally!).  The streets that run parallel to Queen Street are all named after females, and the perpendicular streets are named after the men.  Click to see a map of Brisbane, Australia.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Brisbane (and south-east Queensland) over the years, as I have some family members who live there.  I've always felt that for a large, metropolitan city, it has a very laid-back feeling to it.  Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of culture and shopping, etc., but the atmosphere and attitude remind me of a big country town.

There's plenty to see and do, even just in the CBD and surrounding areas.  Part of Queen Street is blocked off to traffic - it's an open air pedestrian mall right in the heart of the city.  Picture a bustling, colourful mix of shops, restaurants, cafes, businesses, tourists, locals, buskers and other entertainment.  The Myer Centre is a long-time fixture of Queen Street, with a bus terminal underground, and 9 floors of shopping, eating and entertainment above.

If you like to gamble, you can visit the Treasury Casino and Hotel at the top of the Queen Street Mall.  Set in two heritage buildings, the outside show a glimpse of grandeur from days past.  A leisurely stroll from there can take you to the city Botanic Gardens next to the river at Gardens Point.
Botanic Gardens in the heart of the city
Across the river from the CBD you will find a lovely oasis in the city known as Southbank.  Developed specifically for World Expo 88, this area offers art, culture, nature, shopping, restaurants, a water park and on the weekends they have markets where you can find unique gifts and crafts.  All this, and it's only a stone's throw from the city centre.  In the vicinity you will also find the Queensland Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, State Library and Performing Arts Complex.

One place that you just can't miss visiting is the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.  You might have seen me mention this place in my post - Cute & Cuddly or Dangerous & Deadly.  Rated one of the "Top 10 Zoos in the World" by AOL, it's approximately 13 km (8 mi) from the CBD and you can get there by car, bus or boat.  Despite the name, they have a huge range of wildlife to admire.

You know how real estate agents use the phrase "location, location, location"?  Well, that should apply for holiday planning also!  Brisbane is situated in the perfect location to base yourself where you can enjoy day trips out of the city.  You have the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise only 80 km (50 mi) south, Lamington National Park is approximately 100 km (62 mi) south, and the Sunshine Coast about 100 km (62 mi) north. You can find out all about these places and more on our Brisbane, Gold Coast, Lamington, Noosa, Sunshine Coast Sightseeing and Activities page.
Lamington National Park just south of Brisbane
You can find a great deal on Brisbane Hotels on our website, which compares hundreds of online provides for you so you don't have to do the legwork.  While you're there, saving money, also check out our car rental in Australia page, so that you can have the freedom to drive yourself to all of these great areas in and around Brisbane.  Just remember, we drive on the left!

If I can answer any questions you might have about Brisbane, please just leave me a comment and I'll be happy to address them.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria, the 'cultural capital of Australia' and second largest city in the country with a population over 4 million, is definitely worth a trip to see and experience.  As a destination, it's very easily accessible, with plenty of international and domestic flight options.  The city has an integrated public transport system with buses, trains, trams and taxis.  Let me tell you though, if you're not used to being around trams, you really need to pay attention, both as a pedestrian and as a driver.  The CBD is laid out in a grid pattern, so navigating your way around is pretty easy, although not without its quirks.  If you get verbal directions from someone, make sure you really pay attention, as many of the main roads have a second 'little' road...for example, there's Collins St, then Little Collins St; or Bourke St, then Little Bourke St; it sounds confusing, but when you look at a map of Melbourne, it's laid out very logically.
Map of Greater Melbourne
One of my favourite things about Melbourne was the mix of historic and contemporary architecture.  I spent hours wandering aimlessly around downtown, watching the people and admiring the buildings (and dodging the trams).  An iconic piece of history, Flinders Street Station is a great place to meet up with mates, or use as a landmark if you get lost, as you simply can't miss it.  On the corner of Flinders and Swanson Streets, next to the Yarra River, it covers 2 city blocks.
Flinders Street Station
Without really paying attention to where I was going, I walked from Flinders Street Station to China Town.  Incidentally, it's the oldest China Town in Australia, established during the Victorian gold rush in 1851.  After getting the requisite souvenirs, I continued along Russell Street in search of the Old Melbourne Gaol.  Initially, my purpose was to see where the famous (or should I say infamous?) Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, was jailed and hanged.  Honestly, I was a bit surprised to find the building and the exhibits were really interesting.  It's a good thing that I wasn't on a tight schedule for a change....

Feeling a bit peckish and parched, I decided to find a cafe.  That was not a problem, as there were restaurants and street cafes aplenty....the issue was trying to narrow down the options.  Melbourne is such a multi-cultural city, there seemed to be an endless choice of cuisines.  I finally decided on an Italian place on Lygon Street and sat down to rest my weary feet.

Hopping on a tram, my next stop was the Shrine of Remembrance.  Located in Kings Domain, an area of parkland that also includes the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Shrine is an elaborate memorial to all Australians who have served in war.  I thought it was beautifully laid out and definitely recommend climbing the stairs to the lookout on the Shrine and visiting the vaults to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Shrine of Remembrance

If you have the time, consider a visit to Phillip Island to watch the Fairy Penguin parade. Check out the great write up my colleague, John, did on his blog about Phillip Island.

Another great excursion if you have room for it on your schedule is the Great Ocean Road.  It's a full day trip from Melbourne, but the scenery is definitely worth it and you'll get plenty of great photo opportunities, including the iconic Twelve Apostles rising majestically from the ocean.  Pass by quaint beach townships, limestone cliffs, rainforests and discover the rugged Shipwreck Coast.  You can book your trips to Phillip Island or the Great Ocean Road on our Melbourne tours sightseeing and activities page.
Twelve Apostles
On this trip I was lucky enough to stay with some mates, but you can find hotels and accommodation in Melbourne on our website.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Adelaide, a city often overlooked by the international traveller, has a wealth of attractions to make it appealing to a wide variety of people.  As the capital city of South Australia, it's the perfect size - large enough to lots of culture, infrastructure and service, while being small enough to have character, the chance to bump into some locals and not be totally overwhelming the way a massive city can.

One of the nice things about the downtown area is that the major streets are laid out methodically in a grid pattern, so you shouldn't have too many problems finding your way around, and then it's surrounded by parkland.  It's a good city to get around on foot, or you can hop on a tram or bus.
Aerial view of Adelaide

Due to its location on the eastern side of the Gulf St Vincent, Adelaide has many easily accessible beaches that are only 20 minutes or so from the city centre.  You can even take the tram right from the heart of the city to the nearby suburb of Glenelg and wander on the beach near Jimmy Melrose Park.

If art and culture are more to your liking, you'll be glad to know that Adelaide has plenty of both to offer.  Held every March since 1960 is the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, internationally renowned and considered to be one of the world's greatest art celebrations.  It showcases theatre, opera, cabaret, dance, contemporary and classical music and new media.  If you're going to visit during this time frame, make sure you book your Adelaide Hotels well in advance.

I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I always love the countryside where you find the vineyards and South Australia is no exception.  In this instance, the hard part is deciding which direction to go.  The most well known region would probably be the Barossa Valley about 60 km (40 mi) north of the city, the Wine Coast (or McLaren/Southern Vales) south of the city, or the Murraylands in the southeast.  There's also the Clare Valley, even further north than the Barossa Valley, but you could always find a hotel out of the city and combine the two regions.

Another 'must see' destination when you make it to Adelaide is Kangaroo Island, Australia's 3rd largest island.  It's only about 13 km (8 mi) from the tip of Cape Jervis, or about 112 km (70 mi) southwest of Adelaide.  You can either do a day trip from the city, or if you want to really explore and enjoy, you can book accommodation on Kangaroo Island itself.  At least a quarter of the island is protected and conserved, so it's a great place for wildlife.  Obviously the first one that comes to mind is the kangaroo, but you can also find goannas, bandicoots, wallabies, possums, echidnas, koalas and platypus.  It's also listed as an Important Bird Area due to some of the bird-life that is supported.
Feeding the wallabies on Kangaroo Island
What could be more Australian than feeding some furry critters on Kangaroo Island???  For a great list of bookable things to see and do, please check out the Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and Barossa Valley Tours Sightseeing and Activities page on our website.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Hunter Valley

Being a mere 2 hours drive north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley is a great option for either a day tour, or a place to stay and enjoy a bit longer at one of the Hunter Valley Hotels, Lodges or Retreats.  The region is most commonly known for its wineries, but you don't necessarily have to be a wino to appreciate the beauty of the area.  It is also known for its thoroughbred horse breeding, so horse riding options are quite plentiful.

The early stages of wine....
The region is named for the Hunter River - the main river that flows through the area, although there are several smaller ones also.  The mouth of river is found at Newcastle, the largest city in the vicinity, and the second most populated area in New South Wales.  The Port of Newcastle is of vital importance to the area, especially to facilitate the coal exports for which the area is also known.

There are a number of cultural festivals held each year in Newcastle, as well as a wide range of art galleries and theatres.  The area has a very active music scene, which spawned two popular Australian bands, Silverchair and The Screaming Jets.

Although the Newcastle metropolitan area has an extensive public transport system, to get a really good look  at the region I would suggest hiring a vehicle from our Car Rental page.  However, if you're going to be touring the a booze cruise so that you don't have to worry about drink-driving.
The Hunter Valley
If you don't have a lot of time to spare and want to combine The Hunter Region as part of stay in Sydney, consider doing the spectacular Hunter Valley Luncheon Tour by Helicopter (you can find the link for it on our Sydney Tours Sightseeing and Activities page).  You'll be picked up and dropped back at your hotel, so you don't have to worry about transfers.  It takes approximately 6 hours, but you get a breathtaking aerial view of Sydney Harbour, the city and the northern beaches before landing in one of the vineyards for a scrumptious three-course lunch.  Sit back, relax and absorb the peace and tranquility before heading back to the big city.

Should you choose to drive from Sydney to the Hunter Region, make sure you stop at Somersby (about 50km/31mi north of Sydney) to visit the Australian Reptile Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.  A great place for the kids, it's a hands-on zoo with lots of animal interaction and wildlife shows.  You can even have your photo taken with a python, koala or wombat - just not all at the same time!

Start planning your trip today!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Blue Mountains

If you've already spent time in Sydney checking out the glitz, glamour, nightlife, attractions and all of the wonderful things to experience, perhaps you're ready to venture outside of the city for a while.  One of my favourite nearby regions is the Blue Mountains.  They got their name from the distinctive blue haze that surrounds the area, created when the oil dispersed by the eucalyptus trees, combining with dust and water vapour, scatter short-wave length rays of light that are predominantly blue.   Incidentally, the region was listed as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 2000.  
The Blue Haze the area is known for
I took a train from Sydney to Katoomba, the largest city in the area, taking only 2 hours.  It was nice to sit back, relax and watch the scenery change from large, bustling metropolis to virtually untouched landscape in the Blue Mountains National Park.  It was June when I visited, and although the weather in Sydney had been quite nice, it was considerably cooler by the time I got to Katoomba, making me grateful for the jumper I had brought with me.  The main reason for my trip was to get a first hand look at the biggest drawcard of the area - The Three Sisters.
View of The Three Sisters from Echo Point
From the Echo Point lookout, I had a wonderful panoramic view of the Jamison Valley.  After taking a bunch of photos, I made my way around the other side of the gorge to Katoomba Scenic World, where I just had to ride the Scenic Railway and the Skyway.  The railway is the steepest cable-driven funicular railway in the world, with an incline of 52 degrees at the steepest section.  The ride was great and took us through some very dense rainforest, giving a completely different perspective of the area than I got from the lookout.  After getting off the train, I noticed that the wind had picked up considerably but thought "what the heck" and decided to give the Skyway a go.  Boy, am I glad I did!  The view was spectacular and the feeling of being suspended over the gorge and Katoomba Falls was heart-pounding (in a good way)!  As the cable car was returning, a huge cloud of mist started moving up the valley.  It didn't take long before The Three Sisters were obscured from view, so my timing was perfect.  Due to time constraints, I didn't get a chance to experience the Scenic Cableway or do any bushwalking (of which there are lots of options).  If you want a good workout, try the Giant Stairway walking track - it makes my legs hurt just thinking about it!

If you're thinking about visiting and looking for a place to stay, we have a section dedicated to this region on the Blue Mountains Australia Hotels page on our website.  From this page, you can also link to Day Trips & Excursions to the Blue Mountains.  Although Lilianfels is probably the most well known accommodation, there are plenty of other options to choose from.

My trip back to Sydney was uneventful, which I guess isn't all bad.  I have to admit, I did smile smugly as we got closer to the city centre and saw the gridlocked traffic as we glided by on the train.  Sometimes public transport really is a great option.  Stay tuned for my next Australian adventure....

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Iconic Sydney

Immediately, my mind conjures up the image of the harbour with the Sydney Opera House and the Coathanger (Sydney Harbour Bridge), one of the most recognisable scenes in the world.  I don't believe that any trip to Australia could ever be complete without a visit to Sydney.  Of course, for many international travellers, Sydney is often their point of entry, making it very easy to incorporate into their holiday.  I know that when that plane banks and I get a view of the harbour just after dawn, that I've finally arrived home again.
The Sydney Opera House
Let's start with a few facts.  After many years in the travel industry in the US, I've noticed that it's a pretty common misconception that Sydney is the capital of Australia.  As the most populous city in the country and the most well known, I can see where people get that idea from.  Although Sydney is the capital of the state of New South Wales, Canberra is in fact the nation's capital.

Sydney was established in 1788 on January 26th (celebrated annually as Australia Day), by Arthur Phillip, as a penal colony for Britain.  From such harsh and humble beginnings, a true multicultural metropolis did grow.

There's plenty to see, do and experience in and around Sydney. For a start, you can check out the Sydney Tours Sightseeing and Activities page on our website.  One of my personal favourites is the jet boat tour on the harbour.  If you love speed, you'll love this!  Of course, for a more sedate pace, there's always a lunch or dinner cruise.  If you're not leery of heights, try the Harbour Bridge climb.  The view from the top is spectacular!  The regular climb takes 3 and a half hours, but they've added an express climb which can be accomplished in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

The Sydney Aquarium located on Darling Harbour is currently undergoing a face-lift and 3 new areas have recently opened.  This large complex is a great place to spend a day viewing and interacting with some unusual sealife.   Across the harbour from the Opera House you can find Taronga Zoo.  It's easy to catch a ferry from Circular Quay and be there in just over 10 minutes.  A word of warning,'ll probably be pretty knackered after a full day of walking around all the great exhibits since the zoo sits on an incline.  It's totally worth it though, as the views from the zoo, and my favourite spot - the amphitheater where they do the free flight bird show, will knock your socks off!
Sydney Skyline at Dusk
When you're looking for a place to stay, remember, it's a huge city.  It really does help to have an idea of what you want to see and do before picking a place to stay, so that you can find one conveniently located.  Have a look at our Sydney Australia Hotels page to get a better understanding of what's what and to book your hotels in advance at a great price. 

Sydney is a great city to walk around, and you could walk for miles and not see everything.  The Royal Botanic Gardens are right in the heart of the city, and just a short walk from there is Mrs Macquarie's Chair, located on the peninsular, a sandstone bench carved by convicts in 1810.  It's a good place to stop for a breather and admire the view of the harbour.  If you head east, you have to stop for a real Australian meat pie at Harry's Cafe de Wheels near Finger Wharf (the original location).  Or, if you're heading west, you can stroll around to Bennelong Point, where the Opera House sits, and continue on to Circular Quay.  To get a really top notch view of the entire area, zoom to the observation deck of Sydney Tower (sometimes known as AMP Tower or Centrepoint Tower), which stands 309 m (1014 ft) above the CBD.  A stone's throw from the tower is Hyde Park, a lovely, green respite from the concrete and buildings (although it's not quite on the same par as London's Hyde Park).  At the northern end of the park is the Archibald Fountain and at the opposite end you'll find the ANZAC War Memorial.

These are just a few of the many options of things to see and do in Sydney.  I could write pages and pages of stuff, but what fun would that be?  You need to get out and discover some on your own!  My next post will be about some day trips (or longer) that you can do in the general area while you're based in Sydney.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tassie - The End of The Line

Leaving Strahan in my dust, I point the car northeast, towards Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake, situated in the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park 165 km (102 mi) northwest of Hobart.
Cradle Mountain
The National Park has lots of walking trails available, although I didn't schedule enough time on this trip to do one (I wish I could have stayed a month to fit it all in!).  Of course there's the well known Overland Track which takes at least 3 to 4 days on foot, but there are much shorter ones as well.  A couple of different options are listed on the Cradle Mountain page on our website.  Just click through on each walk to get more details or to book it.

The Park is a great place to view some local wildlife, as it is home to pademelons, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, wombats, quolls, possums and more.  It's also been designated as an Important Bird Area, being the habitat of quite a few of Tasmania's endemic bird species.

After stopping to wander around a bit looking for a few photo opportunities of the mountain, I didn't stick around too long thanks to a very brisk breeze that kept things cool, even though summer had begun.   The next stop was at my accommodation for the evening - Lemonthyme Lodge in Moina, about 30 minutes drive from the National Park.  This was the sort of place that you don't just stumble across, you really need to be looking for it.  Of course, I had booked it from the Cradle Mountain Hotels page before I arrived in Tassie, as I do with most of my hotels.  I'm so glad that I arrived in the daylight and was able to get a good look at this 'lodge'.  I use quotation marks because this place was actually a huge log cabin!  Set in the middle of the rainforest, blending in to its surroundings, I have to say I found a gem.  The cabins were extremely comfortable and very private.  Just outside the lodge that evening I was treated to a mini wildlife show!  Slowly, out of the scrub, I watched as several different critters made their way closer to the lodge looking for food.  Unfortunately, it was just on dark, so none of my photos came out very well.

Making my way towards Launceston the next day, I stopped en route to tour the Marakoopa Cave near Mole Creek.  I know some people who say that if you've seen one cave, you've seen them all; but I have to respectfully disagree with that.  The guide I had for this tour was very knowledgeable, but the best part was that he was funny.  For me, a little humour goes a long with with helping to learn about stuff.  I will warn you, it can get a little chilly underground, so I suggest taking a jumper with you, regardless of the outside temperature.
Stunning formations in the cave
The rest of the day (which wasn't much) was spent wandering around Launceston before heading to the quaint township of Evandale to spend the night.  Evandale is located just south of Launceston, and approximately 5 minutes from the airport, which made it the perfect place to stay when I had an early morning flight.  There was something very relaxing about Evandale - almost like the time passed slower there.  It's a bit hard to describe in words.  For some reason, the post office just enchanted me.  That is not what I consider a typical government building to look like...
Evandale Post Office
And so, my Tassie adventure drew to an end.  I flew out of Launceston back to Melbourne (my colleague, John Walters' old stomping ground), where I spent an afternoon sightseeing and dodging trams.  An uneventful flight back to the US had me home in time for a chilly Christmas.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tasmania - Westward bound

Following on from my last post (mmmm, still thinking about Cadbury chocolate!) I begin to make my way northwest.  Sticking to the A10, I pass through the townships of New Norfolk, Hamilton and Derwent Bridge.  Somewhere along the way (I wish I had paid closer attention) I passed a roadside stand selling strawberries.  You know the kind, where they still operate on the honour system?  Well, I buy a punnet of strawberries and get back on the road.  Halfway through, I realized that I should have bought 2 or 3, because they weren't going to last long!

Past Derwent Bridge (before I got to Queenstown), I stopped at Nelson Falls, more to get out and stretch my legs than for anything else.  Boy, wasn't I pleasantly surprised after a short, easy walk through the lush rainforest to find these pretty falls at the end?  The rainforest was so dense, it was at least a couple of degrees cooler inside than it was out near the road.
Nelson Falls

Continuing on to Queenstown, I was struck by the change in the landscape.  Up until then, for the most part, it had been a very pleasant drive though the countryside with farms, trees and plenty of rivers.  Areas around Queenstown, however, looked almost desolate with not much vegetation on the hills.  The scenery changed again soon after I had this place in my rear view mirror.  I was so absorbed in watching my surroundings that it took a while to notice the lack of traffic.  It got to a point where I was surprised to even see another car!  Not exactly like Dallas rush-hour traffic, that's for sure :-)

My accommodation for the night was in Strahan (pronounced Strawn), a little seaside town about mid-way down the west coast with a decent sized harbour.  The first word that came to mind when I saw it was 'quaint'.  Charming cottages on the hillside, an esplanade, lots of small boutiques and shops.  You can read more about Strahan and the West Coast on our website.
Luckily the weather was perfect, if a little cool, for the Gordon River Wilderness Cruise I had booked the following day.  The cruise starts out by crossing Macquarie Harbour to Hell's Gates (what a great name, hey?) the incredibly small gap in the rocks that provide the only access from the Southern Ocean to the only safe harbour on the west coast of Tasmania.  The here was whipping something fierce - I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be piloting a boat.  From Hell's Gate we travel the length of the harbour to enter the Gordon River.  Now we are transported into what seems like a different world...the rainforest, the glass-like river, the tranquility.  After living in a major city for many years, it was so nice to truly be able to hear the wildlife around us all without any background hum.  It's easy to see why this area is World Heritage Listed.

We had the opportunity to disembark at Heritage Landing and have a bit of a stroll on an elevated wilderness walk.  I know there were a few 'real' photographers on the tour that made the most of it with some pictures that put my little snapshots to shame.  A lovely buffet lunch was served on board and we turned back towards the harbour, with a quick stop at Sarah's Island - yet another convict settlement, this one from the 1820's (before Port Arthur was established).  With a guide leading our little group around the ruins on the island, we learned a bit more history about the place.  The boat gets back to Strahan mid-afternoon which allowed for a look about town before dinner.  You can learn more about the cruise, or make a booking, on the Gordon River Wilderness Cruise page on our website.  Seating is limited, so I highly recommend booking ahead.

I will finish up the last leg of my journey to Launceston in my next post - stay tuned!

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