This close to Christmas, most of the marquee destinations are booked solid. But adjust your search just a fraction and you’ll find plenty of gems still available. By Suzi Petkovski

So you’ve left the holiday booking to the death-knock – again. The prime spots are taken – but all is not lost. Shift your sights up the highway, or in from the coast to a hinterland escape. The following destinations may not get the love of better-known tourist magnets, but they punch above their weight when it comes to attractions and facilities.

Think: Margaret River (WA)
Go: Denmark

Led by the tourist Mecca of Margaret River, the “cape to cape” coastline in the lush bottom corner of WA is going ballistic. You need to travel further to find your patch of paradise but Denmark, on the south coast 55km west of Albany, is well worth the trip.

A touch of Byron on the Southern Ocean, it’s a cruisy, arty-alternative, nature-loving place studded with galleries, potteries and coffee shops and ringed by wineries, apiaries and orchards. The coastline is beautiful, the fish abundant and the climate mild and mellow.

Denmark’s visitor centre, at 60 Strickland St, has info on three heritage trails you can walk or drive. Go to http://www.denmarkvisitorcentre.com.au/. Denmark Markets sets up on Saturdays in summer at Berridge Park on the riverbank.

The forest here tumbles almost to the sea (Denmark started out as a timber town) so you can combine bushwalking and snorkelling in the one day. Mt Shadforth, with its lookouts and forest walks, overlooks Denmark, and only 60-odd kms west is the Valley of the Giants with its Tree-Top Walk, 38m above the forest canopy. To get away from the crowds, take the track beside the Giant Tingle Tree up into the hills and cool off at Circular Pool.

Denmark has no shortage of uncrowded swimming spots. The pick of the coast is Greens Pool, about 30km west of town in William Bay National Park. The track takes you right to the beach. With massive boulders protecting the sandy clear shallows, Greens Pool is like something designed for an Esther Williams extravaganza. It’s also a top snorkelling spot but you don’t need flippers and a snorkel to gasp at stingrays gliding past in thigh-deep water.

Think: Cradle Mountain (TAS)
Go: Deloraine

Accommodation in Tasmania’s wild heart is stuffed tighter (and earlier) than a Christmas turkey. Deloraine, only 50km west of Launceston and bang in the centre of northern Tasmania, puts you at the back door of Cradle Mountain and other natural wonders.

Aside from being a gateway to the beckoning wilderness, Deloraine is a charmer, with the aptly named Meander River and its velvety green banks, a smattering of antiques and old wares among the Georgian shopfronts, lush farming country, a folk museum that houses the visitor centre, and some very grand accommodation.

Nestled in greenery and visible from the main road is the handsome Georgian mansion Calstock, dating from 1837. The 200-acre estate includes stables and heritage-listed English elms and oaks. Go to www.peppers.com.au. Deloraine also has a string of hotels and motels, B&Bs, cottages and caravan parks. Phone (03) 6362 3471.

At the base of the Great Western Tiers, Deloraine is ringed by waterfalls: Liffey, Meander, Westmoreland and Montana Falls are all within 30km. Limestone caves, 40km west of town, are another natural draw. The road goes via Mole Creek, home to the unique leatherwood honey. Marakoopa Cave is inside the Mole Creek Karst National Park, while King Solomons Cave is further west and well sign-posted.

Near the end of the blacktop at Liena, the C138 winds deep into majestic old forest. You can head south to Lemonthyme Lodge – the largest log house in the southern hemisphere – or wind up north and across long, deep Lake Barrington to the back road to Cradle Mountain. All up, the turn-off is 100km or so west of Deloraine, but allow time for winding roads and photo ops.

South of Deloraine, the Lake Highway climbs the escarpment to the vast central lakes and their trout fishing. For the energetic, the 477km Tasmanian Trail, which weaves from Devonport in the north to Dover in the south, can be accessed just out of Deloraine. For the less energetic, 10km away is Elizabeth Town, home to Ashgrove Cheese and the Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm, both on the Bass Highway.

Coming from Launceston, take the scenic old road, which passes through hedgerow fields and oh-so-English delights of Hadspen (and nearby Entally House), Carrick, Hagley and Westbury, with its village green.

Think: Beechworth (VIC)
Go: Wangaratta

One of the last towns bypassed by the Hume Highway, Wang continues to be bypassed by many would-be visitors, lured away by the High Country, Milawa’s gourmet region and the showpiece gold town of Beechworth. Their loss.

Prosperous and pleasantly laid-out, Wangaratta, 235km northeast of Melbourne, boasts a colourful past, historic pubs, fine food and wine, wonderful 19th Century architecture and the lovely, sunken Merriwa Park, with grass tennis courts, a playground, picnic grounds and bushy bits along the King River.

The state-of-the-art visitor centre, in the old library building on Murphy St, is a one-stop shop for the whole northeast region. Phone 1800 801 065 or go to www.visitwangaratta.com.au. Pick up the brochure for the self-guided historic walk, a pleasant orientation tour taking you past the birthplace of Weary Dunlop, imposing St Patrick’s Catholic Church (1865), Holy Trinity Cathedral (1908) with its distinctive wooden belltower, and Bishop’s Lodge, a grand Federation that housed Wangaratta’s first bishop.

Gold and bushrangers shaped Wang’s early identity. The old cemetery on Tone Rd contains the grave of Daniel “Mad Dog” Morgan, whose corpse was buried here (initially outside the fence). His head was detached and sent to Melbourne for forensic study. The visitor centre has put together a Kelly Country tour, covering Ned’s haunts in six shires, all the way into southern NSW. Interpretive signage is being developed. Go to www.nedkellytouringroute.com.au.

These days, Wang is the starting point of the Great Alpine Rd and the Murray to Mountains rail trail. It’s also the centre of a gourmet food and wine region. Milawa is across the Hume Highway, while Glenrowan’s wineries and orchards are just 15km south. Around 50km north is Victoria’s biggest wine region, centred on Rutherglen with its smooth muscat and tokay.

Other nearby attractions include the charming old gold town of Chiltern, 36km north along the Hume. The quaint 19th Century streetscape makes you feel like you’ve stumbled onto the set of a costume drama. It’s a bit like Beechworth 20 years ago, before the crowds.

Think: Grampians & Halls Gap (VIC)
Go: Ararat

Halls Gap, the shady base camp of the Grampians, is crawling with hikers and campers in summer. Your next best bet is Ararat, less than 50km away. An 1850s gold town, Ararat has a wealth of opulent old buildings and a vine-lined main street.

French settlers planted the first vines in 1863; their legacy is the Great Western wine region 15km up the road. Seppelt winery here dates from 1865; its vast underground cellars have been classified by the National Trust. Closer to town are Montara Winery and Cathcart Ridge. Both were established in the 1970s, produce a range of reds and have picnic facilities.

Ararat’s Barkly St is like an architectural theme park, with revivals of Classical, Gothic and Romanesque styles, alongside Queen Anne fancies and gold-boom Victorian. The expansive Alexandra Gardens, with orchid glasshouse, were laid out in 1901. History-walk brochures, available from the visitor centre at the revamped railway station in High St, explain the origins of many attractive landmarks.

The Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre, on Lambert St (or the Western Highway if you’re coming from Ballarat), commemorates the 700 Chinese miners who struck gold here in 1857, inadvertently founding Ararat. The find was an accident; the Chinese, mostly from Guangdong province, were prevented from going on to Clunes by racial hostility and stopped to bed down by a spring. They had already trekked 400km from Robe in South Australia to avoid the Victorian port tax. See www.gumsan.com.au.

Channel Hannibal Lecter as you enter the bluestone pile of J Ward, an institute for the criminally insane until 1991. Now it’s a leading tourist attraction. Three murderers were executed and buried here. Guided tours run several times a day and give you all the creepy details.

For panoramic lookouts, One Tree Hill is a short scenic drive northwest of town, while Copes Hill is three kms southwest along Moyston Rd. Further along Moyston Rd is the turn-off to Norval Dam, a swimming, fishing and yabbying spot. Accommodation in Ararat includes over a dozen hotel/motel options, several houses and two holiday parks. Go to www.visitararat.com.

With its jagged granite peaks and sheer drops, the Grampians range is the dramatic exclamation mark of the Great Dividing Range. Before Major Mitchell named the Grampians in 1836, they were home for thousands of years to indigenous people who knew the place as Gariwerd. Aboriginal rock art sites are mostly in the north and west. The Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre, near Halls Gap, provides cultural information and tours. Go to www.visitgrampians.com.au.

Think: Bowral (NSW)
Go: Orange

“Parking on the main street with the radio on is what passes for a Sunday outing in Orange.” So wrote Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Horwitz in his rollicking around Australia odyssey, One For The Road. But that was in the bad old 1980s.

Orange, three hours’ drive from Sydney, is glammed up and booming, with a fast-growing population (currently 38,000) and a blossoming food and cool-climate wine scene. There are no oranges in Orange (it was named for Prince William of Orange) but in summer you can pick your own berries and stone fruits.

Orange is the centre of the highest wine region in Australia, and you can sample at 25 cellar doors. Go to www.winesoforange.com.au. In town, several sophisticated eateries dish up local seasonal produce and a terrific farmers market sets up at the Orange Showgrounds every second Saturday of the month. Check www.orangefarmersmarket.org.au.

A gracious city, thanks to its golden origins, Orange is the Central Highlands’ answer to Bowral in the Southern Highlands. Its gentle charms may be lost on adrenaline junkies, but plenty would happily get lost for a day or two in its showy parks and gardens – Cook Park, the Botanic Gardens and Civic Gardens are right in town. At the latter, you’ll find the visitor centre. Phone 1800 069 466 or go to www.orange.nsw.gov.au.

Bigger playgrounds include pretty Lake Canobolas, with a deer park, public barbeques and picnic facilities, and Mt Canobolas (1397m), about 15km from town, with a wildlife park. A track winds up the mountain (an extinct volcano which gets dustings of snow, even in October), affording views of Orange and the sprawling western plains.

About 25km north of Orange are the Ophir goldfields, site of Australia’s first payable gold strike in 1851. On Ophir Rd just out of town is the birthplace of Banjo Paterson – not a house but a memorial park with huge oaks. Other nearby attractions include the Borenore Caves, 17km west; the historic village of Carcoar, 35km south; and if you’re here around January 6-8 and remembered to pack your white rhinestone-studded jumpsuit or Priscilla wig, make your way to Parkes for the Elvis Revival.

Think: Blue Mountains (NSW)
Go: Armidale

The hub of the rich New England plateau, Armidale has heaps going for it. Australia’s highest city (at 980m), it’s also one of the most historic, packed with solidly handsome old architecture befitting its status as an ecclesiastical and educational centre.

The 19th Century spires of St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral and St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral still dominate the skyline. The University of New England, Australia’s first regional university (established 1954), has museums of antiquities and zoology (both free), as well as a kangaroo and deer park and the 19th Century Booloominbah homestead, donated to the university and housing its administration department.

Thousands of uni students keep it all lively and guarantee plenty of cheap eats (and plentiful liquid refreshment in the many grand old pubs – check out the Imperial and the New England). Beardy St, the central mall, is lined with heritage buildings and hosts a street market the last Sunday of every month. The Visitor Information Centre is at 82 Marsh St; phone 1800 627 736 or go to www.newengland.org. You can pick up walk/drive brochures here or take a free two-hour Heritage bus tour.

You probably weren’t planning on art appreciation in Armidale but do not miss the New England Regional Art Museum on Kentucky St, with works by Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Brett Whitely (a stark self-portrait). All free. Right next door is the Aboriginal Centre and Keeping Place, a cultural, exhibition and performing arts centre.

If you can tear yourself away from Armidale’s civilising charms, the surrounding area is dotted with national parks and nature reserves on all sides. The big parks are east of the New England Highway, taking in plunging gorges and steep forests as the plateau breaks up into the Great Dividing Range. The Armidale-Dorrigo road (aka Waterfall Way) is one of the most dramatic drives from the tableland down to the coast. Take a whole day.

You’ll pass Wollomombi Falls (arguably the highest in Australia, dropping 225m), Cathedral Rock NP (a two-hour track takes you to the summit for a 360-degree panorama), and New England NP on the other side of the road. Take the gravel road to Point Lookout and its sweeping views down to the coast. Next waterfall stop is Ebor Falls, a double drop of the Guy Fawkes River, just outside the village of Ebor. Another 40km on is the scenically sited timber town of Dorrigo; stop, grab a bite and rummage in its craft stores. Dorrigo NP, just east of town, has more lovely (yawn) waterfalls and scenic lookouts, as well as a skywalk over the treetops. The road then follows the Bellinger River to the ocean. At the Pacific Hwy, go north to Sawtell and Coffs Harbour; south to Nambucca Heads.

Think: Noosa (QLD)
Go: Coolum

Coolum and its magnificent beach is no secret; none of them are left on Queensland’s gaudily gorgeous Sunshine Coast. But it’s more tranquil than bustling Noosa, 20km north. In a subtle dig at its all-too-popular neighbour, Coolum’s tourism tagline is “Sea For Yourself.”

Many rate Coolum Beach, which stretches for two kms, well above Noosa’s, with its squeaking white sand and constant patrols. Rocky headlands at the southern end – Point Perry and Point Arkwright – break up the wide expanses of sand and offer good fishing.

Apart from a couple of towers, Coolum is resolutely low-rise and low-key.  Even the Hyatt Regency, which opened in the late 1980s and heralded Coolum’s arrival as an upscale beach resort, is spread at the base of Mt Coolum rather than dominating the beachfront. Accommodation ranges from caravan parks to penthouse apartments. Go to www.coolum.com.au.

Eating out is certainly not cheap, but prices aren’t as jacked-up as in Noosa. A good-value option is the Coolum Beach Surf Lifesaving Club on the Esplanade, which offers big servings so you can linger over the water views.

The best views are free: from the top of Mt Coolum, a 200m extinct volcano just south of town. It’s a short but steep hike. Other good ways to burn off the fisherman’s baskets (at least out of the water) include cycling, tennis, skydiving, camel-riding and horse-riding. Coolum boasts several classy golf courses – the Hyatt Regency hosts the Australian PGA Championship in December.

From Coolum it’s an easy drive to a cluster of local attractions: the Big Pineapple and Macadamia Nut Factory at Woombye, Australia Zoo at Beerwah, Nutworks and the Ginger Factory at Yandina and Underwater World aquarium at Mooloolaba. Don’t miss Eumundi market every Saturday and Wednesday (see www.eumundimarkets.com.au) and BYO water bottle; there are 500-plus stalls to trawl past.

Think: Robe (SA)
Go: Beachport

These delightful fishing villages are just 50km apart on South Australia’s Limestone Coast. But while many Aussies know of historic Robe, few non-Croweaters are aware of Beachport, further south.

Wedged between Rivoli Bay and Lake George, Beachport’s appeal is obvious: aquamarine waters, a long stretch of shallows, powdery sand, Norfolk Pines, old stone buildings and a 770m jetty, one of Australia’s longest and best to fish from. No surprise that the summertime population doubles. And then some.

The first Europeans made Beachport a whaling station in 1830s; the first settlers arrived in 1845. The town’s landmark building is the Old Wool & Grain Store on Railway Terrace, now a National Trust Museum and a must-stop. The visitor centre is on Millicent Rd. Go to www.thelimestonecoast.com.au for accommodation options.

Beachport is a big player in the rock lobster industry (although Larry the Lobster crouches over Kingston, up the coast). Lobster season is October to April, so get it fresh during summer. Natural attractions abound. Lake George is the spot for birdlife, fishing and windsurfing. Beachport Conservation Park, between the lake and the sea, has Aboriginal shell middens and a sign-posted 1.2km walk. Penguin Island, about 200m offshore, is a penguin rookery, very active in summer. The lighthouse was originally on the island, but was moved to the mainland. The Pool of Siloam, on Scenic Drive, has seven times the salinity of the sea. Its buoyancy is both great fun and therapeutic for certain ailments.

Beyond the next fishing port, Southend, is the coastal Canunda National Park, with wombats, walking tracks, quiet coves and giant sand dunes; see the visitor centre for 4WD trails.

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