#1 – Yamba, NSW
Explorer Matthew Flinders first splashed ashore from his trim sloop, Norfolk, in 1799 near Clarence Head, a monolithic heap of rock that shields Yamba from the wilder excesses of the Pacific Ocean, to fix a leak and maybe have one.
He’d been despathed from Sydney to find a new Eden, but from his vantage point atop a craggy promontory, now Pilot Head, he blithely dismissed the shoaling, turbulent estuary as dangerous and unworthy of further examination, before sailing away. A shame, really, because he completely missed what he was sent to find; the largest estuarine system on Australia’s east coast, the fabulously bucolic Northern Rivers Delta, and one of Australia’s most-favoured holiday spots. Yamba.
Liberally blessed with a perfect climate, quasi-bohemian lifestyle and peerless surf beaches, the jewel in Yamba’s board-riding crown is the revered and treacherous Angourie point break – beginners need not apply. Picture postcard pretty, Yamba prides itself on providing a wholesome, safe and peaceful getaway.
“Like Byron Bay 20 years ago. Relaxed, unpretentious and all about the community.” – Ken Boundy
The town retires early, sleeps soundly and wakes early with the kids. Its lack of nighttime pizzazz is more than compensated for by excellent eateries and more things to do than you can point a wet flipper at. It’s also enjoying a sprucing up.
Street cafes now shelter under sails and flourishing shade trees. Shopping has become more cosmopolitan – posh frock shops, galleries et al – but even under increasing pressure from its burgeoning popularity, Yamba refuses to move at any pace but its own.
Just try hurrying the lads Dave, Mike, Steve and Kev at the bottle shop and you’ll see. Like migratory birds, families return decade after decade for that very reason.
Where? // Far north NSW, 670km (8.5hrs) north of Sydney, 280km (4hrs) south of Brisbane
Did you know? // Yamba’s marina is owned by local Kay Cottee (OA) who, in 1988 aboard her 11.2m First Lady, became the first woman to single-handedly circumnavigate the world non-stop. She took 198 days.
#2 – Esperance, WA
It’s the real secret of WA. Esperance is insanely beautiful, and is described by most who see the remote area as the most beautiful coastline in Australia. The brilliant aquamarine water fades into deep blue and the sand is so blindingly white it looks like snow drifts across the road. Esperance was “discovered” by Europeans quite some time before the rest of Australia, with the islands off Esperance – The Recherche Archipelago – appearing on maps printed in Holland as early as 1628.
Esperance was named by the French, the first Europeans credited with landing in the bay in 1792, off the ship l’Esperance – The Hope. To get the most out of the experience and the area, the Esperance’s Great Ocean Drive is a 38km loop that takes in the best landscapes and vistas – the lookout on Wireless Hill gives you a spectacular view of the coast and surrounds. The nearby islands are chock full of seals, penguins and birds and you can cruise out to the wildlife sanctuary on Woody Island
“Years ago, after a long drive across the Nullarbor, Esperance and the beautiful offshore islands of the Recherche Archipelago cast their spell over me. I’ve spent the years since daydreaming of my return.” – Kerry van der Jagt
Cape Le Grand National Park to the east of Esperance is one of the best in Australia. AT reader Ewa Malinowska, who accidentally came across Esperance when her car broke down between Norseman and Albany, sums it up: “The national park is beautiful and the beaches pristine. It’s a paradise!”
Where? // Around 740km (9hr) southeast of Perth.
Did you know? // On July 11, 1979, Esperance was showered by sky debris from America’s first space station, Skylab. Esperance sued the US, seeking $400 for littering, but it was never paid. A San Francisco newspaper paid 17-year-old Esperance local Stan Thornton $10,000 for delivering the first piece of Sky Lab to the paper’s office – collected from his roof.
#3 – Port Douglas, QLD
Port Douglas is a traditional boom and bust kind of town. In 1877 the village boomed like any good Australian town when gold was found in the nearby river system. And when the railway snaked into southern rival Cairns 14 years later, it was all bust for Port Douglas, dwindling to a small fishing village of 100 in the 1960s. Which is right about the time arch white-collar criminal Christopher Skase stumbled upon it and decided to build a world-class resort.
His development of the Sheraton Mirage on Four Mile Beach marked the beginning of the revival that saw Port Douglas become a playground for the rich and in/un and just famous. It has a number of excellent restaurants (AT’s pick is Harrisons), bars and nightlife for the young at heart, as well as activities for the kids. Trips to the reef can be less hectic and crowded than from Cairns, and nearby Mossman Gorge, Daintree rainforest and other activities mean most wishes of holidaymakers are met – especially during the idyllic months of April to October.
“Any town whose property has tripled in value in a decade must have something going for it. Sealed roads end here, so savour the moments, even if the markets now stock organic miso soup rather than handmade coconut shell etchings.” – Justin Wastnage
The final say goes to local AT Reader Helen Whyte, who loves the following about her hometown: “Rainforest to reef and Coral Sea, tropical balmy weather, fresh-caught seafood at a myriad of great restaurants, and its ’Mango Season’, when all of us who live here go a little troppo.”
Where? // Around 70km (1hr 15min) north of Cairns along the pretty Captain Cook Hwy.
Did you know? // Once known as Terrigal, Island Point, Port Owen and Salisbury, Port Douglas was also President Bill Clinton’s only vacation stop on his 1996 Aussie tour. Five years later and out of office, Clinton returned to Port Douglas. It’s reported that he was advised of the September 11 attacks while dining at the Salsa Bar & Grill. He returned to the states the very next day.
#4 – Broome, WA
The trifecta of the best Australia has to offer: red dirt, white sand, blue sea, and it’s all found in one place. A whopping 2389km north of Perth, straddling the peninsula between Cable Beach and the mangrove flats of Roebuck Bay, the 126-year-old town of Broome – where the outback meets the sea – has a past as varied and colourful as the scenery.
The influx of Chinese and Japanese pearl divers in the 1870s are responsible for a thriving China Town that comes to life during the annual September Shinju Matsuri Festival of the Pearl – dragon boat races, fireworks and float parades celebrate the port of pearls. The cemetery where 919 divers are buried showcases the more sombre side to the industry, but retailers on Dampier Lane and Short Street have well and truly put those days behind them. Linneys, Kailis and Paspaley sell pearls of all shapes and sizes, many straight from local farms still operating today.
“It’s impossible to take a bad photograph in Broome; the amazing colours, the scenery and the magical light simply won’t allow it. Nothing compares.” – Ken Boundy
If you’re after a bit of danger, check out the new Wildlife Wilderness Park and Refuge Centre. Crocodile feeding, crocodile breeding and endangered animal regeneration takes place in the large grounds just outside of Broome. You won’t hear a “crikey” here, but Australian bushman Malcolm Douglas has put blood, sweat and tears into giving more than 200 crocodiles a home.
Where? // On the edge of the Kimberley region, 2389km (about 28hrs drive) north of Perth.
Did you know? // From Gantheaume Point, around 6km south of town and at very low tides, dinosaur footprints believed to be from the Cretaceous period around 130 million years ago can be seen preserved in the rock, about 30m out to sea.
#5 – Port Fairy, VIC
Port Fairy, Victoria’s oldest port, was a favourite hunting ground for whalers and sealers who once ruled the town. It was also a destination for escape during the 1800’s for Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine that was raging back home. A hint of that old Ireland fishing village flavour still lingers, and it maintains one of the state’s largest fishing fleets, where many fishermen return to the port unloading an abundance of crayfish, abalone and sharks off their boats.
“Like the original Belfast (as the town was originally named by its Irish protestant whaler settlers), this town holds its secrets deep.” – Justin Wastnage
More than 50 historic buildings line the town’s wide streets, from whitewashed whalers’ and sealers’ cottages to colonial merchants’ homes and grand public buildings. Nearby, the 1856 Griffith Island Lighthouse that has faithfully guided ships safely to port still towers with its white and red solid stature.
As Panellist Justin Wastnage suggests: “Wander along the beach to the lighthouse, or in the other direction to one of the best cafes in Australia, or delight in the fine dining options that would make other towns blush.”
Either as an outright destination for a romantic long weekend, or simply as a breath of fresh air in the midst of your next Great Ocean Road adventure, charming Port Fairy is not to be missed.
Where? // Around 290km (4hrs) southwest of Melbourne on the eastern headland of Portland Bay.
Did you know? // The oldest house still standing in Victoria is in Port Fairy. Although the exact date of construction is unclear, it’s believed to have been built in 1843. The State Government now owns the house.
#6 – Beechworth, VIC
Beechworth is by far the best-preserved 19th Century gold mining town in Australia. Not a single building in the town’s centre feels 20th, let alone 21st, Century. The Beechworth streetscape is so instantly charming because the buildings were largely constructed in the same style, at roughly the same time, and with the same material – the local honey-coloured granite.
Ned Kelly, the town’s most notorious loiterer, could ride into Beechworth today and, ignoring the cars and oddly dressed people, it would look much the same as when he left in late 1880. In fact, he’d probably be arrested and charged at the local courthouse for stealing the horse he rode in on.
The courthouse retains its grandeur and original furniture, and visitors can stand in the same cell Kelly did before he was taken to Melbourne Gaol and hung. Beechworth’s current claims to fame are its growing number of microbreweries, the to-die-for range of Beechworth Honey, its regional fine food and the renowned Beechworth Bakery – Australia’s No.1 purveyor of piping hot pies, breads and cakes.
A town brimming with secrets of bygone eras, it’s not hard to see why people flock to Beechworth to walk the very same streets down which the Kelly Gang sauntered.
Where? // 270km (3hrs) northeast of Melbourne.
Did you know? // Robert O’Hara Burke was police superintendent in Beechworth from 1854 to 1858. Despite being well known for getting lost in the bush, he was selected to go on an expedition across Australia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he and the ill-fated Wills failed to complete their journey of discovery, with Burke’s impatience and lack of bushcraft thought to be largely responsible.
#7 – Byron Bay, NSW
Beguiling Byron. A place of happy beach existence, where sophisticated barefoot executive meets trust-baby bohemia meets yoga master. It’s the ultimate Australian town where no-one is out of place: DINKS, Reiki masters, ferals, wealthy Europeans and British backpackers all live happily here. Its carefully crafted laidback ambience and ability to totally unwind the most knotted of shoulders make it virtually unmissable for most travellers.
For the first timer, the town itself can be underwhelming and, within an hour of arriving, many wonder what the fuss is about. But within 48 hours the cynic is usually converted and another I-just-looove-Byron-ite is born.
Dreadlock-crowned locals insist this is something to do with meridian lines. The township can loosely be divided into four sectors. The two wealthiest are those around Watego’s Beach east of the main township at the base of the lighthouse, and the hillside houses overlooking Tallows Beach. The northern end of town is often best left to the bong-belching backpackers.
The town centre is a hub of restaurants and waterholes. And the beauty of Byron is that there’s so much to do after a long day lounging on the beach.
Where? // 770km (10.5hrs) north of Sydney, 165km (2.5hrs) south of Brisbane.
Did you know? // Until the surfers and hippies arrived in the 1960s, Byron was struggling to survive. The reasons? Unclear, but the foul smell of the local meat and butter works and whale processing plants surely contributed to the problem.
#8 – Apollo Bay, VIC
One in a long line of unaffected and modest towns along the Great Ocean Road, Apollo Bay has everything, plus a few extras. On one side you’ve got a perfect beach that never gets too crowded, and on the other the magnificent cascading Otway Ranges. But it’s what lies between that puts Apollo Bay on our Top 100. Its 1700 unpretentious residents live cosmopolitan lifestyles, with cafes, restaurants, shops and fresh seafood direct from The Fisherman’s Co-Op, while surrounded by two stunning natural wonders.
It’s the starting point for the popular Great Ocean Walk and just 30mins away lie the Hopetoun Falls, set about by endless tracks and brief pools that are chilly but refreshing. Mariners Lookout is the best place to see Apollo Bay in its entirety, with its curving headland and cluster of moored boats.
“No drive (or ride!) is more memorable along the coast than this one. Red-roofed ’doll’s houses’ speckled among green pastures that roll out to the endless blue ocean . . . it really is like something from a fairytale.” – MyPOWER Team
There are ample ways to unwind here and it’s not hard to see why people who come for a weekend end up staying a lifetime.
“Natural beauty frames this picture-perfect Australian town,” says AT Reader Kim Hutchinson. “And at its heart is a community whose true spirit shines through with warmth.”
Where? // 186km (2.5hrs) southwest of Melbourne.
Did you know? // Apollo Bay’s first name, Krambruk, is Aboriginal for “sandy place”. In 1877 it became Middleton, then in 1898 it was named Apollo Bay after a schooner, The Apollo, sought refuge there.
#9 – Strahan, TAS
In AT’s book, it’s a crime not to visit Strahan if you head to Tasmania. It really is an amplification of everything that Tasmanian tourism stands for.
On the edge of the magnificent Macquarie Harbour, Strahan started life as a sleepy fishing village with a small timber industry. It was considered isolated and left behind by “progress” through much of the 20th Century. And being “left behind” has left us with something monumentally special: a chocolate box-perfect town enveloped by virginal rainforests. The area is an assault on the senses, with a purity and clarity that isn’t replicated anywhere else in Australia.
The waters are cleaner, the air fresher, and the place leaves you both invigorated and grateful that the town never came to a sticky end. Strahan has risen to become one of Tasmania’s tourism hotspots, and deservedly so. With a scenic railway, myriad cruises, flights to explore the region and twee artisan shops, you could almost forgive the place for becoming a parody of its former self.
Thankfully it hasn’t, and the pressure that tourism brings has been extraordinarily well managed.
Where? // 300km (4hrs) west of Hobart. Come via Queenstown so you can see what relentless mining can do to a fragile environment.
Did you know? // Some of the most expensive seafood on the planet is fished from Macquarie Harbour. We never see it because it’s boxed up and placed on cargo flights straight to Hong Kong and Japan.
#10 – Margaret River, WA
More than any other town on our Top 100, AT’s panellists clamoured to make positive comments on Margaret River, the unofficial capital of WA’s southwest.
“A recipe of surf, grapes and rainforest, best served with company,” said the MyPOWER team, who cycled through on their big lap of Australia and found it very difficult to leave.
“More than possibly any other wine region stopping point, Margaret River is a town in its own right,” said panellist Justin Wastnage, “with great places to eat and real pubs for those odd occasions when you don’t have any cellar door purchases to BYO.”
Golf nut Matt Cleary said, “Great wine, great beaches and a laidback rural feel with great food and fine golf. I would live there. I might yet.”
And from Perth-based Fleur Bainger, who more than any other on AT’s panel can be considered an expert local: “A weekend in Margaret River never seems long enough. Surrounded by tall trees and household-name wineries, and close enough to the ocean that you can almost feel the salt in the air, the township is a mix of tree-change greenies, surf addicts and gourmands.”
AT Editor Greg Barton had the final say, with this: “Do not leave town without visiting the Margaret River Pottery, home of local ceramic artiste Ian Dowling. Ian built it himself out of mud bricks using the clay from a nearby riverbank. Talk about authentic.”
Where? // Around 275km (4.5hrs) south of Perth along the coast.
Did you know? // Forget the wines and the waves; Margaret River is in the centre of an internationally recognised “biodiversity hotspot” (one of only 34 in the world, and the only one in Australia), with nearly 80 percent of its plant species found nowhere else on the planet.