Photo Courtesy of Tobias Keller
The land down under may seem like a world away, but it’s a dynamic destination that caters to music lovers and fashionistas, urban adventurers and discerning gastronomes, the nature-intrigued and seasoned outdoors explorers. Two disparate aspects of Australia⎯its heavily multicultural character and …a mineral resources boom has bolstered the economy—have enlivened the food and cultural scenes. It has snow, extreme heat, beaches, deserts, tropical rain forestsand a very great barrier reef.
What to know before you go to Australia
“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges, of droughts and pouring rains,” goes a traditional Australian tune. It’s true: This is a land of extremes. But play it right and Australia will provide ample opportunities for perfect surfing or skiing or traipsing around the many stunning national parks. Winter is June to August, when most of Australia hits a low season. This is the time to ski in the Kosciusko National Park or on Victoria’s Mount Hotham. It’s also the best time to visit northern Australia. Between May and September the Northern Territory, northwestern Australia, and Queensland offer ideal weather. In summer, these areas swelter, either too humid or too hot, inciting some travelers to make a U-turn to more friendly climes down south. From September to May, southern Australia is at its peak. Every other traveler looking for antipodean escapades arrives at this time of year, but there’s plenty of land to go around. December to February have most Sydneysiders and Melbournians pumping up the air-conditioning, while braver tourists define new tan lines on Bondi and Manly beaches.
They don’t call Australia “the land down under” for nothing. It’s a long flight from just about anywhere. And once you’re here, the various must-see destinations are spread over vast distances, so some logistical planning is necessary. There are no restrictions on foreign citizens entering Australia, but a visa is usually required. Whether you arrive by boat or plane, security is high and customs restrictions can be daunting. Many inbound flights to Australia stop at Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, or Perth.
Interstate flights are easily accomplishe via Qantas, Jetstar, Tiger, and Virgin. To see the whole continent in under a month is a serious undertaking and will involve trains, planes, a few automobiles, boats, and a ferry or two. A less daunting project would be to take on the East Coast in one trip, spending time in Sydney and Melbourne, exploring Adelaide and the Great Ocean road by car, taking a car-ferry or flight to Tasmania, popping in to Canberra, and jetting up to Queensland for the tropical experience. Western Australia is simple to navigate by train, car, or tour bus, but don’t even think about going into the outback alone in summer. The interior outback, known as the Red Center, is best reached by organized tour, available as luxury excursions, adventure operations, backpacker units, and every other imaginable collective. You can take four-wheel-drives off road, but carry water (five liters per day, per person), bring a high-frequency radio transceiver, and be sure to respect Aboriginal sacred land, national park rules, and animal crossings at dusk and dawn. (Neither party comes out well from an on-road clash with a large kangaroo.)
Foreigners’ overused jokey adage to “throw another shrimp on the barbie” no longer sticks. First of all, Australians call them prawns. Second, Australian gastronomy has surpassed the humble barbecue. It remains a happy summer stalwart in backyards across the country, but what happens elsewhere is more interesting. The country’s food scene has been largely overlooked abroad, and for the most part the global food media have shunned Australia’s culinary experience, focusing instead on its cuddly native critters and extraordinary landscapes. It’s also true that the nation’s food culture is really only now coming of age. What was a less than inspiring restaurant scene just a couple of decades ago has blossomed in recent years. Some restaurants (Attica, Quay, Sepia, Vue du Monde, Flower Drum) can stand up to the world’s best.
The new year kicks off the traditional cycle, and less than a month later the country celebrates Australia Day. Officially it marks the anniversary of the arrival of the British in Sydney on January 26, 1788. Mindful of the original inhabitants of the land, the day is now simply a celebration of being Australian. Folks light the barbecue, play cricket on the beach, and take to the outdoors. Every happy Australian stereotype comes out on one glorious public holiday. Parties don’t come much more mind-blowing than the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, the biggest of its kind in the world. Go along to cheer on the sequined, feathered, Lycra-wearing ensemble as they celebrate equal rights. Forget Milan and Paris: The Mercedes Benz Australian Fashion Week in March has style setters and celebrities cooing over local labels such as Sass & Bide, Lover, Collette Dinnigan, Camilla and Marc, Jac + Jack, Anna & Boy, and Willow, among others.
Hippies, rockers, folk fans, indie types, country listeners, jazz groovers: There are festivals across Australia for every sort of music lover. Big Day Out is one of the largest rock, pop and indie music festivals, stopping at several states. Travel north to Byron Bay to revel in the stunning bushland setting of Splendor in the Grass, and go to Tasmania for the Falls Festival. See where Keith Urban started his career at the Tamworth Music Festival. The Hunter Valley’s Jazz in the Vines appeals to all ages. There’s Tropfest for film lovers and the Sydney, Melbourne, or Byron Bay Writers Festivals for the more literary.
Australia is a wide, stunning, varied land. To travel around it well requires great research and good advice. Locals love nothing better than spouting off about their favorite places, the best eats, the must-nots and must-dos. “Shout” (buy) a local a beer and you’ll get better insider advice than you could from a guidebook, and probably a really good laugh.
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