#1 – Visit Lord Howe Island, NSW
Where is it? 600km north-east of Sydney, NSW
The locals call it “the last paradise”, and Lord Howe certainly does have that South Pacific kind of feel to it. A vivid green volcanic island that rises dramatically out of the sea, you’d almost expect a ’60s-era Elvis to be wearing a lei and swinging an acoustic guitar here.
But despite first impressions, Lord Howe is not Hawaii. For starters, it’s just 10km long and 2km wide, and it is small on the population front, too – just 400 visitors are allowed on the island at any one time, making any stay feel secluded and exclusive, perfect for a romantic getaway. And while it’s just two hours from Sydney or Brisbane, it’s not easy to get to.
QantasLink flies out of Sydney most days, from Brisbane on weekends and weekly from Port Macquarie during peak season, but seats sell fast. Book your seat well in advance.
So why is it worth the effort? Because it’s truly unlike anywhere else in Australia. To be honest, we were surprised Lord Howe came in top of the list after our panel had voted – we were expecting a more predictable winner such as Uluru. But Lord Howe could win on looks alone. Defined by the twin peaks of Mounts Gower and Lidgbird at the southern end of the island, Lord Howe is one of the prettiest islands in the world.
“The climb to Mt Gower is one of Australia’s best day walks.” Dick Smith
On the western side of the island, a crystal-clear lagoon laps onto the aptly named Lagoon Beach, which is sheltered by a long stretch of coral – the world’s southernmost reef. There are 11 beaches on the island, with evocative names such as Blinky Beach and Lovers Bay, all with lovely golden sand; many are perfect for shell collecting.
It’s an ideal snorkeling and diving destination, too, due to the clarity of the water. The eastern side of the island in particular offers excellent surfing and fishing opportunities. Ned’s Beach is home to huge kingfish, which swarm around tourists’ legs at feeding time.
Perhaps the best thing about the island is that it hasn’t been dominated by a major resort, so the township is full of character. All of the accommodation here is owned and run by small operators. You can rent out a self-catering apartment such as Leanda-Lei or Ocean View Apartments, stay in a family-run guesthouse at Pinetrees, or go all-out on luxury accommodation at Arajilla or Capella Lodge (where our cover was shot).
Oh, and twitchers will find 129 native and introduced bird species here. No wonder it’s one of just four island groups to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
#2 – Fly over the Bungle Bungles, WA
Where is it?250km south of Kununurra, WA.
You’ll be speechless within seconds of take-off as you’re introduced to Purnululu National Park’s Bungle Bungle Range, a carved 350 million-year-old landscape of gorges and pools surrounded by a soft, green blanket of grassland.
Since its discovery in the 1980s, what was once Australia’s best-kept secret is now internationally recognised as a top destination. Because most of the area is inaccessible by car or foot, the best way to appreciate the tiger-striped beehive domes is from a plane or helicopter.
The huge black and orange mounds rise up to 300m, while olive-green fan palms cling to the crevices below. Flocks of native birds swoop between the gorges, tracing the long and narrow chasms and the thick skin of stripy silica and algae on the rocks.
“The biggest sandstone massif on the planet is too big to comprehend from the ground; its scale can only be appreciated from the air.”Bill Peach”
If you look really carefully, you might see gorges decorated with Indigenous rock art and filled to the brim with Dreamtime secrets.
No matter how many times you soar over the Bungle Bungles, they always look different, depending on the time of year, the time of day and prevailing weather conditions. It’s a place you could visit time and again, and we urge you to do it at least once in your lifetime.
#3 – See Lake Eyre in flood, SA
Where is it? 700km north of Adelaide, SA.
Something that has long been considered a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ phenomenon has occurred for the third year in a row, so you’d be crazy not to experience it. During flood season, if the conditions are right, water from the rivers in outback Queensland eventually works its way down to the vast dry salt plains of Lake Eyre.
Until 2009, it was very rare for substantial quantities of water to make it this far – in fact, the highest water level recorded at Lake Eyre was in 1974, at a depth of 6m. But this year the lake’s southern end is full, and the northern end is three-quarters full.
“Have a beer and fling your bra across the bar for me at the William Creek Hotel. I don’t drink beer but did the bra thing” – Catriona Rowntree
Even when the lake is not entirely filled, it’s an amazing sight. The water brings fish and birdlife, and the interaction between the water and an algae called Dunaliella salina endows the landscape with a pink hue.
The best view is from an aircraft, but you can also take a 4WD tour around the edge. The indigenous land owners, the Arabanna people, ask that visitors respect the waterway and not take recreational craft out on it.
Also consider taking an air safari tour that includes camping overnight. You’d never think a flood plain would astonish you, but the combination of scale and the sense of the ephemeral make it a very special experience.
#4 – Walk along Wineglass Bay, TAS
Where is it? 125km north-east of Hobart, Tas.
Treat yourself to some real travel eye-candy by visiting one of the top ten beaches in the world, as voted by the UK’s Condé Nast Traveller magazine – and the fourth best travel experience in Australia, as voted by us!
There are two great vantage points that offer that emblematic bird’s-eye view of Wineglass Bay’s perfect curve of white sand, pink granite rocky shores and turquoise waters: the Mount Amos and Coles Bay lookouts in Freycinet National Park. Even the most amateur of photographers couldn’t take a bad pic here. But nothing compares to actually getting down on that pure white sand.
“Tasmania has both well-preserved history and lovely scenery. Some of the most beautiful is at Freycinet Peninsula, with Wineglass Bay shaped exactly as the name suggests.” – Bill Peach”
Another great way to experience the region is on the Wineglass to Wine Glass full-day guided walking tour, where a maximum of eight hikers are given a commentary on the flora, fauna and history of the region while immersing themselves fully in this extraordinary Australian bush landscape.
After walking through national park and putting your footsteps in the sand of this iconic Tasmanian beach, you end up at a banquet table on Hazards Beach, nursing a glass of the region’s cool-climate wine.
Come at the beach from another angle by taking a dolphin-watching cruise. But no matter which angle you tackle it from, Wineglass Bay is a winner.
#5 – Drive the Big Lap around Australia
Where Is It? All around Australia
The Big Lap, as it’s known, is the ultimate driving journey Australians take when we realise there’s more to life than work. We cull all our stuff, kit up the car, get sorted with camping gear or caravans, and set off on the road to everywhere.
“Do this at least once in your life. I’ve done it over 20 years in cars, motorcycles and by thumb.” – Tony Wheeler
Many of us do it when we retire. Some of the smarter ones among us do it before we’re tied down with careers at all. Still others return home from living overseas and head off, after guiltily realising we know more about the rest of the world we do about our homeland. The bravest among us do it with young kids.
One thing is for sure – it’s a trip worth taking and one you don’t want to rush. We urge you to take a year off to explore. You can always pick up where you left off when you get back. If you want to.
#6 – Go back to nature in Kakadu, NT
Where is it? 170km south-east of Darwin, NT.
Where better to get back to nature than in Australia’s largest national park – covering almost two million hectares of wilderness?
Enter the unique World Heritage-listed landscapes, and discover outdoor galleries of ancient art (and a few interesting creepy crawlies). Swim under postcard-perfect waterfalls, hike through the deep red gorges, cruise the Yellow Water wetlands and learn from Indigenous people about how their ancestors related to this land
There are no towns, crowds or commercial centres in the middle of this semi-arid desert, so you’ll sleep under a perfectly clear, starry sky.
“This tropical national park is the best wetlands wilderness in the world and a World Heritage site.” – Bill Peach
We recommend you take at least a week to discover Kakadu. This wondrous national park is the home base for more than 280 bird, 60 native mammal and thousands of insect species, 120-plus types of reptiles and, of course, crocodiles. It’s both beautiful and thrilling to see so many unique Australian animals in the wild.
The hardest decision is not about whether to visit, but when. The wet season brings vibrant, tropical vegetation but also rain, heat and humidity. The dry season gives you more access to explore a landscape of deep earthy colours and magnificent scenery that ranges from wetlands to stone country, chasms and coastal cliffs.
The traditional owners of Kakadu have occupied the land for over 40,000 years and today lease it to the government for the wider public to explore. Kakadu holds the largest collection of Indigenous rock art in the world, and it’s an absolute privilege to be able to visit one of its significant sites, a living gallery of rock art that ranges in age from about 20,000 to just ten years old.
#7 – Explore ancient Arnhem Land, NT
Where is it? Between Kakadu National Park and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land begins 300km east of Darwin, NT.
Its population is almost entirely Indigenous. It offers over 90,000km2 of astonishing untouched wilderness. You can only drive into the region by 4WD, and even then only between April and September, well out of wet season.
Arnhem Land’s drives are challenging, its campsites are remote (you’ll often have them to yourself) and anglers here won’t believe the size of the fish. With barramundi over a metre long, there’s no need to exaggerate.
“There is no other place on earth where you could possibly feel as much like you’ve stepped out of a time machine into the dawning of life on this planet.” – Elisabeth Knowles
Art lovers will be pleased they’ve stumbled across the place with the oldest rock art in the world. Visit Injalak Hill, Canon Hill and Ubirr Rock to see some of the best examples. Just south-east of the mining town of Nhulunby, you’ll find the Yirrkala community, who are known for their bark painting.
This is also where you can best invest in a didgeridoo (properly known as a yidaki), as this is where they originated and they are still crafted and painted according to traditional techniques.
AT’s managing editor, Quentin Long, reckons Arnhem Land is life-changing, and we know you’ll agree. But please note: you need a permit to visit, so you have to plan ahead.
#8 – Visit Australia’s Antarctic territories
Where is it? Australia’s closest Antarctic station, Casey, is 3440km from Hobart, but the subantarctic Macquarie Island is a mere 1500km south-east of Tasmania.
It seems the question of where to go on your holidays is becoming more of a conundrum than ever. Travellers are increasingly attracted to not only the road, but the location less travelled. The more remote, the more elite the tour group, the more extreme the environment, the better. Blame expedition cruising, and the more active and agile among the retired leisure class.
Antarctica is an increasingly covetable destination, and the Australian Subantarctic Region, until recently little known, is now on the tourism radar too. So you’ll be glad to know you can still be an Australian traveller while you’re in Antarctica.
“While you are here, make sure you visit Mawson’s Hut at Cape Denison. It’s untouched and completely frozen in time 100 years on.” Lisa Wilkinson
Macquarie Island, for example, which is halfway between Australia and Antarctica in the Southern Ocean, is in fact considered part of Tasmania. It’s even looked after by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.
But it’s also on the World Heritage List for being the only place on earth where rocks from the earth’s mantle, 6km below the ocean floor, are exposed above sea level. It’s a breeding ground for fur seals, elephant seals and many Southern Ocean birds, such as albatrosses, and is home to royal and rockhopper penguins.
Then there’s Mawson’s Hut at Cape Denison, a time capsule preserved in ice of Sir Douglas Mawson’s explorer’s hut/scientific base. And Commonwealth Bay, the windiest place on the planet, where you can see king penguins at play.
The only way to get to these places is by ship, of course, and preferably a big, ice-breaking one.
#9 – Cross the country by train
Where is it? Between Adelaide and Darwin on The Ghan, or between Sydney and Perth on the Indian Pacific.
The most relaxing way to see the unique landscape of Australia is from the comfy window seat of a luxury train. There will be no squabbling over who has to drive and who gets to enjoy the scenery – everyone on the Indian Pacific and The Ghan gets a great view.
The Ghan goes from Adelaide to Darwin over three days, via the Adelaide Plains, Flinders Ranges, Red Centre and Top End, covering a distance of almost 3000km. The Indian Pacific, meanwhile, does as its name suggests, picking up travellers from Sydney (on the Pacific Ocean) and taking them to Perth (on the Indian Ocean), via Adelaide and vice versa.
“This is something I can personally recommend – I loved it.” Maggie Beer
Whistle-stop tours of towns along the tracks are included in the price of a ticket, and if you fork out extra for platinum or gold-class ticket you’ll be as snug as a bug in a very plush rug, rather than a seated sardine.
Australia is the only continent in the world that can be crossed coast to coast on a single train, so it would be un-sportsmanly to let the opportunity pass you by.
#10 – Soak up the Flinders Ranges, SA
Where is it? You’ll find the foot of the Flinders Ranges approximately 200km north-west of Adelaide, SA.
This truly is a spectacular destination. We bang on about the Flinders Ranges a fair bit in the office – particularly Wilpena Pound, the vast natural amphitheatre that’s the backdrop for Rawnsley Park and Arkaba Station – so we’re glad our panel rated it as highly as we do.
We’re cheating by making this one thing to do before you die: it’s really three, because there are three distinct regions in the Flinders – the Northern, Southern and Central Ranges. The entire Flinders Ranges is home to excellent cycling and walking tracks (such as the 900km Mawson Trail and Heysen Trail), as well as great food and wine trails.
“To many, the Flinders Ranges represent the essence of The Outback of Australia. The great natural feature of Wilpena Pound, an enormous circle of rock walls, is at the heart of the range and is a must-see destination.” – Bill Peach
The Central Flinders Ranges are home to the aforementioned Wilpena Pound, excellent four-wheel-driving and ancient rock art in the Yourambulla Caves. You’ll also find the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Gardens here, which are worth visiting for their sculptural eremophila garden and Flinders Ranges backdrop.
The Northern Flinders Ranges are as outback as it gets, with some startlingly rugged and challenging 4WD trails. It can get pretty hairy here, but if you’re the adventurous type, this is the place to test your mettle.
While you’re here, be sure to explore the Aboriginal Dreaming Trail – a two-day, self-drive tour that takes you through Aboriginal communities.