#21 – Portsea, VIC
Portsea has long been described as the playground for Melbourne’s elite and it’s not hard to see why. The sprawling 19th Century mansions, beautiful gardens, colourful beach huts and clifftop walks showcase the wealth of the lucky few who call themselves locals.
But you don’t have to be one of the privileged 550 residents to enjoy this pretty seaside village on the tip of the famous Mornington Peninsula; its abundant beaches, world-class golf courses, friendly dolphins and network of national parks are there for everyone to enjoy. The popular tumbledown coastal rock formation of London Bridge is just west of Portsea Back Beach (walk there via the Farnsworth Track, or drive along Back Beach Rd).
It’s also the home of the annual Portsea Swim Classic, run by the local SLSC, a 1.2km slog that attracts 2000 hopefuls each year and is one of the largest open-water swims in the country.
If competitive swimming isn’t your thing, Portsea’s beaches are also the perfect place to paddle your feet before retreating to the famous Portsea Hotel for dinner and sunset drinks on its absurdly picturesque verandah.
Where? // 110km (2hrs) south of Melbourne on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula.
Did you know? // Convict William Buckley (thought to be the origin of the phrase “Buckley’s chance”) escaped from the Sullivan Bay penal colony near Portsea in 1803. He was given Buckley’s chance of surviving, but did so by living for 32 years with the Wathawurungs Aboriginal community that travelled up and down the Bellarine Peninsula.
#22 – Bowral, NSW
Bowral’s catchcry of “so close a world away” holds very true for Sydneysiders in love with this aristocratic capital of the NSW Southern Highlands. The elegant little township teems with cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutiques for the well to do, and its stately homes and mansions, as well as some of Australia’s oldest cultivated gardens, lend it a distinct Scottish Highlands feel.
It has played a huge part in Australia’s sporting history as the town in which Don Bradman spent his formative years (his ashes are scattered around the eponymous Oval and Museum). Delightfully, Bowral is also Australia’s best-known Book Town, part of a rapidly growing international collection of rural outposts with extraordinarily high concentrations of booksellers and bookworms – which only adds to its dignified charm.
“With great little antiques and arguably the best pie shop in NSW, Bowral is more than just another pretty town in the Southern Highlands.” – Justin Wastnage
The town’s famous springtime celebration, Tulip Time, during which Corbett Gardens overflows with more than 100,000 bulbs, has spread from Bowral across the rest of the Southern Highland’s pastoral country, colouring it in vibrant reds, whites and yellows once a year.
Autumn shows another vivid side of the 11,000-soul town, when its trees explode with bright reds and oranges and an entirely new aspect is taken on by its surrounding gardens and vineyards.
Where? // 115km (2hrs) south of Sydney in the Wingecarribee Shire.
Did you know? // The quaint township lays a pretty strong claim to being the birthplace of Mary Poppins. Author PL Travers lived at 45 Holly Street, Bowral, and is thought to have been influenced by events that occurred during her childhood years there.
#23 – Fremantle, WA
Just 19km southwest of Perth but light years from the skyscrapers and business suits, Fremantle has carved out a space of its own.
Panellist Ken Boundy calls it “One of Australia’s most significant and interesting towns,” while Perth-based fellow panellist Fleur Bainger points out that, while these day’s there’s little by way of physical distinction between Perth and Freo, “There is, however, a large cultural distinction, with Freo being home to artists of all persuasions and having a strong bohemian vibe.”
Those artists and bohemians began to converge on the marine port in the early ’90s, taking over grand colonial estates with their studios and boutiques. Cafes and galleries line the Cappuccino Strip, South Terrace – the perfect place for a spot of alfresco dining.
But if European-style people watching isn’t your cup of tea, try studied nonchalance at the iconic Little Creatures Brewery. Restaurant, library and pub, the brewery has its own drop on tap, pizzas in the woodfired ovens and a stellar spot along Fremantle Boardwalk.
“Cool cafes, cool boutiques and cool people. Enough said.” – Justin Wastnage
Troublemakers who get carried away are in luck; Fremantle Prison closed its doors as an operating goal in 1991. Built by convicts in the 1850s, the building is now open to the public. Donning overalls, hardhat, boots and a miner’s lamp for the 2.5hr Tunnel Tour is one way to experience the institution, ending with a punt through waterways beneath the building’s foundations.
Ocean enthusiasts will also enjoy the WA Maritime Museum, a futuristic landmark on Fremantle Quays filled with wreckage relics and history displays.
Where? // 30min southwest of Perth.
Did you know? // The Fremantle Markets were first held in 1897 in a Victorian building now classified by the National Trust. Every weekend and public holiday more than 150 stalls sell everything from cheese to chopsticks.
#24 – Kangaroo Valley, NSW
It’s here that Sydneysiders hop to for that breath of fresh air, and to see pavements of greenery running on forever – 25,600 hectares of it to be exact. Even George Evans, the surveyor-explorer who first discovered Kangaroo Valley in 1812, described the region as a place that “no painter could beautify”.
Almost 200 years later, settlers and developers have kept their unspoken promise to Evans by adopting a hands-off approach to the sleepy valley. Tucking into an Aussie meat pie on the verandah of The Old Barrengarry Store – said to be “the best pies in the world” – is a favourite pastime of passers by.
The oldest surviving suspension bridge in the state, the towering Gothic sandstone landmark of Hampden Bridge, guards the road into town like a drawbridge to a magic realm.
Tiny stores running along the main road hold their share of history; the Nostalgia Factory is like wandering into grandma’s attic, selling original comics, posters and magazines from as far back as the 1800s – a collector’s paradise.
And far from being dry like many spots in our sunburnt country, a cool, hushed air surrounds the Valley at Fitzroy Falls where the pattering sound of the waterfall echoes.
Where? // 158km (2hrs 15mins) south of Sydney, 195km (2hrs 35mins) northeast of Canberra.
Did you know? // Kangaroo Valley has supported several legitimate (and illicit) primary industries in its past, the most prominent being dairy, and perhaps the most interesting being a sideline production in moonshine whiskey in the 1920s.
#25 – Broken Hill, NSW
Surrounded by desert in a 300km radius, Broken Hill is smack bang in the middle of nowhere – or the middle of everywhere, as locals like to say. The compact town has grown to be a culturally diverse and vibrant hotspot. It’s not only home to dingoes, dust and desert peas but to the oldest mosque in Australia, established in 1880 by camel drivers, with one of our country’s oldest synagogues just across town.
Aboriginals and explorers passing through used the area around what is today the capital of the outback as a base, and the town itself wasn’t founded until 1883, when boundary rider Charles Rasp discovered what he thought was tin – and later turned out to be silver and ore.
The isolated Silver City’s mining history is evident from the moment you set foot on its Main Street but the name-giving hills with a break in them no longer exist; they were mined away.
As panellist Fleur Bainger says, “You can’t go past a place with street names like Gypsum, Bromide and Iodide. It also boasts more pubs than you can poke a stick at, and a massive, vibrant arts community typified by Pro Hart. It’s rough, rugged, quirky and beautiful – an ideal mix.”
With its historic and artistic appeal, there’s much to see even before you venture beyond the town’s edge. When you do, you’ll discover why many visitors return: the heart-stopping beauty of the Living Desert Flora and Fauna Sanctuary and its majestic Sculpture Symposium.
Where? // 1159km west of Sydney, 422km northeast of Adelaide.
Did you know? // During WWII all of Australia’s gold reserves were moved to Broken Hill Gaol (the last place the Japanese would look). So, for a while, instead of stopping people from breaking out, the jail had to stop them from breaking in.
#26 – Nelson Bay, NSW
Looking in every direction, it’s impossible not to be taken aback by the endless panoramic views of the beaches that border this NSW north coastal town. Part of Port Stephens, Nelson Bay is the largest town in the “Blue Water Paradise”.
More than 160 bottlenose dolphins have made it their permanent home, and it’s the port-in-passing to over 3000 migrating whales each year. Rows of bobbing boats line the shores, some private charters, others just private luxuries.
Moving with the times is the Nelson Head Inner Lighthouse that has been operating since 1872; previously lit by a kerosene lamp, nowadays it runs on solar energy.
“Shades of the Whitsundays a couple of hours from Sydney.” – Matt Cleary
Littered with an abundance of Gymea Lilies, the Gan Gan Lookout in nearby Tomaree NP is the area’s highest and most accessible lookout point, while other must-dos include tobogganing down the dunes of Stockton Beach, eating some of the state’s best fish and chips in the harbour, swimming, surfing and snorkelling the crystal clear waters, settling in for afternoon coffees at the marina, and cycling along the tidy beachside bike paths.
Where? // 207km (3hrs) north of Sydney.
Did you know? // The native Gymea Lily flowers twice a year, coinciding with whale migration to the area. The first time it flowers, whales pass by to the north; on the second flowering, they head back south.
#27 – Bellingen, NSW
By far the most well preserved of towns on the mid to far north coast of NSW, Bellingen is nestled against the Bellinger River (or under it as of Feb 2009) and is the idyllic village every tree-changer thinks they want.
As AT Reader Lucy Hordern from Keperra says, “In this iconic town you can meet dairy farmers, masseuses and hippies in its multiple quirky cafes and stimulating bookshops. A highlight is to buy local produce at the magical Saturday markets and spend the afternoon listening (and dancing!) to great live music under the gum trees.”
The beautiful 1909 Hammond & Wheatley Department store dominates the main street, its verandahs stretching a protective arm over the footpath for the Sunday moochers below. The building has been lovingly restored and demonstrates the town’s dedication to preserving the best of its assets.
This is largely a new phenomenon for the people of Bellingen; timber cutters scouring the incredibly beautiful Bellinger Valley founded the town in the 1840s, and so dedicated were they to their task that all but the most inaccessible trees had disappeared by the time Messrs Hammond & Wheatley built their new shop and the industry largely moved on.
Today Bellingen is a laidback town making its evolution from a dairy subsistence to a romantic B&B existence, where putting down a good book to mosey into town for a flat white is a debatable exercise.
In fact, AT reckons you can get better coffee in Bellingen than in Sydney these days, and its stores are full of enough interesting knickknacks, particularly at the old Butter Factory, for a great long weekend.
Where? // 516km (7hrs) north of Sydney, or 38km (40mins) southwest of Coffs Harbour.
Did you know? // The Hammond & Wheatley Building, completed in 1909, is in fact the first concrete block building in Australia.
#28 – Leura, NSW
The wealthy neighbour to tourist-cluttered Katoomba, perched on a vast ridge in the Heritage-Listed Blue Mountains two hours west of Sydney, Leura is leafy and lovely, hitting our Top 100 for its winning combination of regal gardens, toys in a mansion, sweet shop delights and impressive arts and crafts stores.
The Cats Meow nicely sums up Leura’s appeal. Unique semi-abstract artworks, craftworks, furniture and trinkets, sophisticated and cute, populate the four rooms and a rickety stairwell of this glorious store. There are many more and, wedged between, cosy little coffee shops provide tasty meals and coffee-downing, paper-reading relaxation.
But kids, both of the outer and inner variety, tend to love Leura the most. There’s a great toyshop and a famously antiquated Candy Store in which rows of tantalisingly transparent jars loaded with traditional candies, liquorice and chocolates generate a constant flow of giddy clientele.
Leuralla, a bright white 19th Century mansion ringed by gardens and overlooking the Jamison Valley, is jam-packed with fabulous toys from the last century. A visit to Leura isn’t complete without a bushwalk (Leura Cascades is an idyllic starting point) or visit to the expansive 1930s designed Everglades Historic House and Gardens.
Where? // 100km (1hr 45mins) west of Sydney.
Did you know? // Leuralla mansion (now the toy and railway museum) was once the home of Dr Herbert Evatt, one of Australia’s most distinguished political leaders. After WWII, Evatt played a significant role in the establishment of the UN General Assembly. In 1948 he was elected its president and in this role witnessed the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document he himself had worked very hard to create.
#29 – Queenscliff, VIC
One hour south of Melbourne, past Geelong and onto the squat Bellarine Peninsula to face off across the treacherous Bass Strait Rip towards Portsea, Sorrento and Point Nepean, lies delicate, elegant Queenscliff.
With grand Victorian-era buildings lining its main street and century-old jetties prickling its main harbour, the town is a fading snapshot of the past. Historic Fort Queenscliff guards the coast, originally built during the 19th Century gold rush to protect laden ships from privateers. From inside the Fort, one of only three black lighthouses in the world watches ships crossing Port Phillip Bay. The Fort shot its last gun in WWII and now houses an outstanding war memorabilia collection.
Surrounded by water on three sides, Queenscliff has stunning coastline views and plenty of delicious restaurants serving the daily catch. A well maintained rail line sees locomotives (including the famous Blues Train) puffing cheery smoke between Geelong and Queenscliff, and on the last weekend in November a Festival train makes it’s way through Swan Bay with music acts in every carriage for the Queenscliff Music Festival.
Fans flock to the popular fishing town for three days to hear international and local acts play with the backdrop of classic architecture and striking scenery.
Where? // On the Bellarine Peninsula 106km (1hr) southwest of Melbourne.
Did you know? // The first shot to be fired by Allied Forces in WWI came from Fort Nepean (at fleeing German freighter, the Pfalz), with the order originating from Fort Queenscliff. Less than 30 years later, the same gun was used to fire Australia’s first shots in WWII (at the freighter Woniora, for failing to identify herself).
#30 – Mudgee, NSW
The ultimate Sydney weekender, Mudgee has some distinct advantages over its better-known wine rival, the Hunter Valley. For one it’s a single town, not an entire region. Mudgee’s wineries form a moat of liquid gold around the township and are an easy journey from town either north, south, east or west.
But it was the alluvial kind of gold which kick-started Mudgee. Hargraves’ original finds in the area, particularly Gulgong and Hill End, led to a boom in population. Prior to this, the town was a fractious farming community most noted for its severe conflicts with the local Aboriginals.
Today, it’s the wine crop that makes Mudgee most notable. The pick of the wineries is debatable, however for pure aesthetic and cellar door experience, the Oatley family-run Craigmoor and the incredibly picturesque and contemporary Logan Wines are AT’s choice.
The region’s organic wineries are also gaining some fine awards (AT rates the Thistle Hill Riesling) and Mudgee’s restaurants are bountiful. AT likes the incredibly good yet overlooked Rajarani’s, where the traditional Tandoor ovens have been installed via India, as well as the very child-friendly Elton’s Brasserie and the “must do” Roth’s wine bar.
Where? // 270km (3.5hrs) northwest of Sydney.
Did you know? // Mudgee has some very famous sons and daughters. The most famous being Henry Lawson, who lived in the area till he left school – almost completely deaf at age 15. Many of his poems are related to scenes in Mudgee, including the “Old Bark School”, which he attended and was established by his activist mother.