Best of Australia: 50 unforgettable adventures

Fifty of our greatest Australian adventures - wonderful in the true sense of the word.

From the editor:

My brief to Traveller's most intrepid writers was straightforward, though not simple, as I learned when the ideas started to flow: document the best of Australian travel; not just fine and fun recent trips but the unforgettable adventures, those memories that linger longest, that have enriched their lives.

In this Traveller special, produced with the support of Tourism Australia's ''There's nothing like Australia'' campaign (see australia.com), Traveller roams through history and across the ''opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land'' described by Dorothea Mackellar. We capture moments that are timeless (the lunar landscape of Lake Mungo in NSW) and ephemeral (pop-up bars in Melbourne), sybaritic (portside in the Whitsundays) and provocative (MONA, Hobart). And much more.

In truth, however, Traveller's Best of Australia special issue is just a sampler. Australia is so massive and magnificent, the possibilities for adventure are limited only by our imagination.

- Helen Anderson, editor, Traveller

Writers: Max Anderson, Andrew Bain Lance Richardson, Katrina Lobley, Louise Southerden, Daniel Scott, Jacqueline Maley, Dugald Jellie, Bruce Elder, Leisa Tyler, Tim Elliott. 

 

OUTBACK

Shout a beer for a stranger, front bar, Prairie Hotel

Parachilna, South Australia

A night in any outback pub is an eye-opener. A session in the front bar of the Prairie Hotel can prove epic.

This is where graziers, shearers, pilots, hedge-fund billionaires, movie stars and anyone who happens to be passing gathers for a drink. The 1890 verandah looks over plains of scrubby desert and by the time the sun is making silhouettes of the Flinders Ranges, the front bar - hung with memorabilia from 135 years of good nights gone before - becomes a beacon of light and noise. Sometimes there's music, often there's laughter and about 8pm an airhorn sounds, emptying the bar so everyone can wave at the coal train as it thunders past en route to Port Augusta.

Of course, the Prairie has put itself on the map for more civilised reasons than cold beer: its kitchen serves dishes spiced with desert ingredients and a now-famous feral mixed grill; it's been a movie location for the likes of Jane Campion and Phillip Noyce; and its accommodation, including four-star suites, is smart and comfortable.

But the front bar is really what this place is all about, the place where strangers meet and tales are told. Start shouting and you'll be amazed what you hear. - MA

Getting there: The Prairie Hotel (prairiehotel.com.au) is west of the Flinders Ranges, and a good launching point for attractions including Wilpena Pound and Brachina Gorge. Drive from Adelaide (5hr, sealed roads all the way) or take a charter flight (1hr).

Levitate over wetlands on the Mary River

Northern Territory

Yes, wetlands are a delicate ecosystem of great beauty deserving reverence. But I, for one, believe a flat-bottomed aluminium pontoon mounted with a V8 Chevrolet engine driving a two-metre aeroplane propeller only adds to the beauty.

The airboats of Bamurru Plains resort are a five-star adrenalin rush, emitting cacophonous noise and speeds to make your eyes water. Want maximum buzz? Sit at the front. Want to avoid being plastered with crickets, dragonflies and small frogs? Don't sit at the front.

In fact, these craft are brilliantly adapted to the wet wilderness stretching before the lodge, sending six passengers scudding smoothly over reed beds, swampland and open water.

The skipper (pilot?) cuts the engine at the idyllic lily fields (chance to taste deliciously sweet lily seeds), a sunken forest (black waters, birdsong and morning tea) and estuarine waters where the Mary River meets the ocean (the place to watch for some of Australia's largest saltwater crocodiles). - MA

Getting there: Airboat safaris are part of a minimum two-night stay at Bamurru Plains (bamurruplains.com); closed December-January. The resort is on the border of Kakadu National Park, a three-hour drive from Darwin airport (resort transfers available).

Ride the Horizontal Falls

Kimberley coast, Western Australia

We've been flying for an hour north of Broome when the seaplane arcs across the inhospitable and uninhabited landscape of the Buccaneer Archipelago and dips over Talbot Bay. Below are two narrow gorges: one only six metres wide, the other 24 metres wide.

When the mountainous tide changes - the tidal range here is eight to nine metres, rising to an astonishing 13 metres on the summer king tide - the equivalent of all the water in Sydney Harbour races through these gorges. Though they look from the air like white-water rapids, the tide rushing through the gorges is actually falling like a waterfall, hence the name coined by the English naturalist David Attenborough.

To experience this natural wonder, Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures runs the rapids in purpose-built boats each powered by two 186kW engines. The experience of falling from the mirror-calm water above the falls through a boiling cauldron flanked by cliffs into Talbot Bay is exhilarating. - BE

Getting there: The only access is with Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures (horizontalfallsadventures.com.au), which runs six-hour and day-long trips from Broome and Derby. They also offer overnight stays in a houseboat, with meals included.

Catch the morning sun at Zebedee Springs

El Questro, Western Australia

As the sun warms the red flanks of the Cockburn Ranges, grab a towel and head for Zebedee Springs, a pinprick of lushness on the million-acre hide of El Questro in the Kimberley.

A signed trail cuts through thick vegetation to emerge on the improbably beautiful sight of clear water spilling between pools. Soft light slices through livistona palms, butterflies show their colours over a small waterfall and birdsong marks a new day. Find a pool to call your own, lie back in the 32-degree waters and wonder whether nature is auditioning for a movie.

It's also a striking exercise in contrast: you don't have to stray far from these springs to find yourself in rough, tough country seared by summer heat. Other cooling respites hereabouts include pools at El Questro Gorge, Amalia Gorge, Champagne Springs and Emma Gorge - and you have to earn all of them by walking an hour or more. The pool at Emma Gorge looks black as onyx, cast in shadow by the surrounding 65-metre cliffs; a waterfall provides mesmerising sound and movement. - MA

Getting there: El Questro (elquestro.com.au) is open April 1-October 31; fly to Kununurra, then drive to El Questro Station (90min), then another 10 minutes to Zebedee Springs. It's open daily 7am-noon; if you're a guest of the El Questro Homestead you can have an afternoon sitting.

Journey to the centre of the earth

Hancock Gorge, Western Australia

From above, Hancock Gorge looks like it has been cleaved from the earth. It twists through the Pilbara hills and drops dramatically into darkness.

We begin our descent into it by clambering down ladders bolted onto the rock walls. On the canyon floor is a creek that we follow; around us the gorge walls rise 100 metres - sometimes abruptly, occasionally in gradual, smoothly worn steps.

Soon the gorge narrows, compressing the creek. To progress, we wade and then swim through cold chest-deep water to a pebbly beach. From here the chasm narrows to a body width, and we advance awkwardly with hand and foot holds on rock ledges. Finally, the gorge opens again, forming a bowl around an emerald pool in shadow.

We sit beside the pool in awed silence, surrounded by rock that is more than 2.5 billion years old. It has taken only an hour to reach this point but it feels like we have journeyed to the centre of the earth and close to the origins of the planet. - DS

Getting there: Hancock Gorge is in Karijini National Park in the Pilbara region and is best accessed by four-wheel-drive. There are flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Karratha, 397 kilometres north of the gorge, and to Paraburdoo via Perth, 100 kilometres south-west of the gorge.

Fly over Lake Eyre in flood

South Australia

Perhaps no place better illustrates the capriciousness of Australia's weather than Lake Eyre. In 2009, the lowest point in Australia made headlines when it filled with floodwater draining from Queensland's Channel Country. The deluge not only transformed the salt pan, it attracted thousands of birds - pelicans, banded stilts, silver gulls and more - and the the lake's tributaries and newly formed islands became breeding grounds. The reason it was big news? The lake had filled like this only three times since Europeans saw it about 160 years earlier.

Freakish climatic events didn't stop there. The lake flooded the following year, and the next and, almost improbably, again this year. While it's possible to drive on desert tracks to one of two vantage points, Lake Eyre is best appreciated from the air. Take a scenic flight early or late in the day when soft light blurs the horizon so it's impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. Many operators include lunch at the iconic pub in William Creek (goat rissoles, buffalo steak, wallaby shanks, kangaroo parmigiana). It's the closest settlement to the lake. - KL

Getting there: Scenic flights depart from Marree, Hawker, Arkaroola and Wilpena Pound in South Australia, as well as from interstate. Wrights Air departs from William Creek and can pick up from Coober Pedy (www.wrightsair.com.au).

Trek across the desert

The Ghan, from Darwin to Adelaide

Transcontinental ... three days on the Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide.

Darwin is perched on the Timor Sea, Adelaide is close to the Southern Ocean - and in between? Scorched desert, the fabled Red Centre and 2979 kilometres of rail track crossing an area once explored by Afghan camel drivers.

Named in their honour, the Ghan is arguably the best train journey in Australia. It takes three days to cross the continent, during which time passengers have their assumptions about the middle of the country radically revised. Forget ideas of an empty landscape; the world through the window undergoes a stunning metamorphosis, from tropics around the Top End to sunburnt country, the sublime Flinders Ranges, and Adelaide Plains. Furthermore, whistle-stops in Katherine and Alice Springs show what life is really like so far from the sea - dry and tough, but full of a fascinating culture that's often overlooked. Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) is a marvel of indigenous history.

Then there's the train itself: at best, platinum class has on-call stewards and luxurious carriages. And the experience of dining in a moving restaurant, with stellar service and a red world flashing by, makes it nearly worth the price of passage alone.

Veteran traveller Paul Theroux wrote that trains ''contain the essential paraphernalia of [their] culture''. To travel on The Ghan is to glimpse the full miscellany of Australia. - LR

Getting there: Connecting Darwin with Adelaide, the Ghan travels in either direction, with berths in three classes (greatsouthernrail.com.au). Whistle-stop tours at Katherine and Alice Springs can be booked on board.

Camp at the top of Australia

Snowy Mountains, NSW

Stand alone, at sunset, by the stone cairn marking the 2228-metre summit of Mount Kosciuszko. Clouds swirl and clear, revealing purple ridges stretching south to Victoria, glacial lakes, ancient peaks all around. The day-trippers have long gone; the chairlift from Thredbo stops at 4pm. That's one advantage of getting here under your own steam, walking in from Dead Horse Gap, through snow gums and snowdrifts and meadows of wildflowers. But the real privilege of this 26-kilometre overnight walk across the main range is the chance to camp at the top of Australia.

Guides have set up the tents and unrolled your sleeping bag by the time you return from the summit, and dinner is almost ready: a chef-prepared meal brought in earlier from Novotel Lake Crackenback Resort. All you have to do is rug up and enjoy the solitude. Tomorrow, weather permitting, you'll see the summit again before continuing on to Charlotte Pass - traversing Australia's windiest ridge, picnicking at the glittering Blue Lake, stepping across the humble headwaters of the Snowy River and tackling the steepest part of the weekend, Heartbreak Hill, at the end of this classic walk through alpine Australia. - LS

Getting there: Kosciuszko Alpine Guided Walks (lakecrackenback.com.au/walks) runs guided overnight walks from Thredbo to Charlotte Pass once a month between November and April, including transfers, park entry fees and camping and walking gear.

Idle on the Oodnadatta Track

South Australia

''Outback'' is a bit like a desert mirage, an uncertain thing that's difficult to define or arrive at. The Oodnadatta Track, however, is dependable outback, delivering massive tracts of empty country (inspiring or intimidating, depending on how you look at it) plus a pearly string of bizarre distractions to break up the nothingness.

Leave the Stuart Highway at Woomera (a curiosity in itself with a rocket park and rocket-range museum), and detour to the town of Andamooka for a dose of opal fever and to see a house made from 10,000 beer bottles.

Check out the world's biggest uranium deposit (Olympic Dam), the world's largest inland drain (Lake Eyre) and a species of brine shrimp that's unique to the strange mound springs.

The remains of the old Ghan railway line run alongside the track, stopping occasionally at abandoned stations beside desert springs. Don't miss Coward Springs with its ''what-the?'' wetlands and warm mineral waters: campers love to sit in the rudimentary ''spa'' sipping a beer while a bazillion noisy corellas come in to roost.

On the homeward stretch lies the tiny town of William Creek (population: 10), the even tinier pub (population 150, plus twice as many bras hanging from the ceiling) and thence to Coober Pedy for more wonderful weirdness. - MA

Getting there: Car hire is available from Adelaide airport; a 4WD might be preferable but it's not strictly necessary since the unsealed road is flat and well graded. Avoid high summer (hot, ouch) and deep winter (wet, road problems). Accommodation is available in Coober Pedy, William Creek and Andamooka.

Walk in ancient footprints

Lake Mungo National Park, NSW

''Paliira kiirinana Parimba'' reads the Paakantji welcome sign on the western border of Lake Mungo National Park (''Our country is beautiful. Please come.'') What lies beyond is the drained basin of an enormous ancient lake, with a lunette (a crescent-shaped dune) so strange it looks like the surface of Mars. Mud accretions tower like miniature canyons; mobs of emus scatter across iron-rich dirt, which washes away in heavy storms to reveal Aboriginal middens some 50,000 years old. Mungo is one of Australia's most remarkable natural sites - and one of its least appreciated, despite being easily accessible from Mildura on the Victoria-NSW border.

Part of the fascination lies in the incredible wealth of indigenous history in the area. In 1969, Dr Jim Bowler found the ''Mungo Lady'', one of the world's oldest-known cremation burials. A ''Mungo Man'' was unearthed soon after. Further north in the Willandra Lakes region (of which Mungo is a part), more than 450 petrified footprints date to 20,000 years ago. Today, the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service  and an elders' council manage the national park, and a brilliant interpretive centre in the Mungo lake bed brings the story and cultures of the area to life. - LR

Getting there: Qantas and Virgin Australia fly from Melbourne to Mildura. Mungo National Park is about 110 kilometres north-east across the border in NSW (discovermungo.com.au); there's a comfortable lodge on the park boundary (mungolodge.com.au).

Wonder which planet you're on at The Pinnacles

Cervantes, Western Australia

No one knows how old the Pinnacles are. Some experts believe these hundreds of limestone pillars, like extraterrestrial tombstones, might be 500,000 years old. Authorities at the Western Australian Museum believe they were formed in the past 80,000 years. Regardless, they look like remnants of a set for a long-forgotten science-fiction movie. Europeans first sighted them in 1849 when Major Logue and his stockmen, searching for lost cattle, came across the Pinnacle Desert.

The origins of the formations are complex. The coast of Western Australia, from Shark Bay to Albany, bears a near-continuous belt of aeolian calcarenite (calcium carbonate) produced by a combination of wind, rain and calcium. On the huge sand dunes south of Cervantes, in the Nambung National Park, rain leached the calcium to lower levels, where it solidified into soft limestone. A layer of soil formed, allowing plants to grow, while calcium cemented the sand deeper still. Drier weather resulted in the soil being eroded and slowly the pinnacles were exposed and weathered. They stand like strange sentinels on a plain of wind-blown sand. - BE

Getting there: Cervantes is about 250 kilometres north of Perth, then 27 kilometres (partly unsealed) to the Pinnacles. Access is carefully controlled. There is a one-way road through the area, and visitors can walk around and inspect the pillars.

 

CITY

Enter the Cage of Death

Darwin, Northern Territory

Nose to snout in the Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove.

Around the world you can swim with all sorts of big critters, but only in Darwin can you come nose to snout with a saltwater crocodile and walk away with a nervous smile. Though most waterways here are no place for a casual swim, at Crocosaurus Cove, in the centre of the city, visitors climb into the so-called Cage of Death, a transparent, acrylic cylinder with room for two people. It's slowly lowered by an overhead monorail into the enclosure of an adult crocodile, including one of the leathered stars (no, not Paul Hogan) of Crocodile Dundee.

The crocs are the five-metre, don't-mess-with-me variety, and the acrylic is only four centimetres thick, engendering a fair amount of fear and adrenalin as the cage is dipped like a tea bag into the pool and remains submerged for 15 minutes. The crocodile lurks with intent. This could be the moment it decides to add another set of teeth marks to the cage. -AB

Getting there: Crocosaurus Cove is on the corner of Mitchell and Peel streets, Darwin. The Cage of Death runs 10 times daily (crocosauruscove.com).

 

Contemplate art and beauty

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Morning light illuminates Fujiko Nakaya's Fog Sculpture, as beautiful as haiku among eucalypts and a world-class collection of sculptures. Fog Sculpture manifests for only a few hours every day, when water is pumped through hundreds of nozzles hidden in the bullrushes of Marsh Pond, creating a fine mist that fills the bush. This ephemeral artwork is part of the National Gallery of Australia's sculpture garden, with works by artists including Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore and Inge King, as well as a proud cluster of Pukamani poles from Bathurst Island. Like so many things in Canberra, the garden was planned meticulously. Landscape architect Harry Howard wanted it to mimic the sequence of rooms in a conventional gallery, but with the asymmetrical wildness of native trees and plants softening the formal architectural principles underpinning the design. Of course, as a visitor you're not conscious of this, only of how beautiful it is to regard such enormous and exquisite man-made objects in the midst of nature. Go in summer, when the gallery sets up an outdoor bar and Canberra's smart young things drink designer beers next to Bert Flugelman's Cones. Or go in winter, on a morning that would be quiet if it wasn't for all that birdsong, and catch the atmosphere of a prehistoric dawn. - JM

Getting there: The gallery is open daily 10am-5pm; free admission to the permanent gallery. Fog Sculpture operates 12.30-2pm daily (www.nga.gov.au).

Pop up in Melbourne

Victoria

Cities are all bricks and mortar but they're a gathering also of ideas and possibilities. Pop-up ventures in Melbourne are a disparate reinterpretation of shared spaces by which a Saturday breakfast cafe opens in a rental terrace, a shipping container turns into a bar in a parking lot, or Stop 15 appears - a shop with a month-long lease given to young retailers on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, named for its whereabouts on the No.86 tram route. ''There's a sense of timeliness, an urgency, with pop-ups that encourages turnover,'' says Kate Vandermeer, co-owner of The SuperCool, a mobile homewares emporium that's had fleeting appearances at hipster cafes but for now runs from the loading dock of a Fitzroy furniture shop. ''It's all about the experience.''

Flagged by social media, pop-ups range from Joost Bakker's recyclable and eco-friendly Greenhouse restaurant (first knocked up on Fed Square before travelling the world) to food trucks (those in the know are never far behind the Taco Truck), and flash-mob performances and start-ups such as Comida Bebe (''pop-up gastro theatre''), which began with a backyard mediaeval spit-roast - don't ask - and has cooked since in public parks, galleries and a cinema. - DJ

Getting there: See www.thesupercool.com, www.comidabebe.com.au, www.section8.com.au, www.somespace.com.au, www.moderntimes.com.au, stop15popup.tumblr.com.

Walk from the famous harbour to the famous beach

Sydney, NSW

Travellers never forget this combination of two walks linking the harbour with the beach (though not just any beach).

Start at Rose Bay, following the 1.4-kilometre Hermitage Walk along the inner harbour. As the path dips down to a series of coves, there are outstanding water-level views of the yacht-flecked harbour and cityscape. Yet the rocky foreshore is almost monastically quiet and surprisingly bushy, bringing to mind the landscape before colonisation.

When the Hermitage Walk ends at Nielsen Park, follow the harbour's contours through the leafy backstreets of Vaucluse to Watsons Bay. Refresh at the waterside pub before climbing to begin the three-kilometre Waverley Cliff Walk. Completed in 2004, the hike follows boardwalks and stairways along Sydney's south-eastern coast, where the Pacific Ocean batters 200-million-year-old sandstone cliffs. Looking back from Dover Heights, there are lofty views of Sydney Harbour. The walk ends at Bondi Beach and a dip among a global mix of hedonists. - DS

Getting there: The Hermitage Walk begins at Bay View Hill Road, Rose Bay; take bus number 324 or 325 from Circular Quay (35min).

'Heard about that great new bar?'

Melbourne, Victoria

Raising the bar ... Melbourne's laneways. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

It began in Meyers Place. A hole-in-the-wall, nameless, lo-fi, late-night laneway bar off Bourke Street designed and run by architects from the city-savvy firm Six Degrees, its appearance in 1993 came to change how a city would drink and use its forgotten spaces. Back-alley bars became an overnight way of life in the Second City, a relaxed after-hours attraction making secondary thoroughfares a first choice. Double Happiness, Gin Palace, Lily Blacks, St Jerome's, Collins Quarter, Madame Brussels, New Gold Mountain and Von Haus are bywords for Melbourne drinking: intimate, civil, low-lit and urbane affairs in the city's honeycomb of lanes.

A new generation of nightcap spots has raised the bar further: Eau de Vie, Bar Ampere, Strange Wolf, Little Red Pocket, The Bottom End, Bar Americano and the soon-to-be-opened Shebeen, a non-profit venture stocking only beer and wine from the developing world. ''There's a thirst for people to consume more consciously,'' says Simon Griffiths, the co-founder of the project. ''There's nothing like it in the world - a bar where profits from each drink go back to development projects in its country of origin.'' - DJ

Getting there: The joy is in self-discovery, within the compact grid of inner-city lanes.

Be shocked by the new

Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania

Descend the rabbit-hole entrance at David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the largest privately owned gallery in the country, and the subterranean maze of dark rooms and illuminated works quickly earns the Walsh-coined description ''subversive adult Disneyland''. On the surface it looks like a vineyard; down below is a suicide bomber cast in chocolate, a genuine Egyptian mummy and an elaborate machine that mimics human digestion. When the museum opened in January last year, not everyone was impressed. More than one critic used words such as ''macabre'' and ''unrelenting discomfort''. Certainly the artworks, which range from innocuous to pieces banned at other institutions, push the limits of some viewers. But what is also pushed is open-mindedness: by refusing to provide much in the way of coddling explanations, the museum challenges viewers to draw fresh meaning from the chaos of strange objects and confronting arrangements. - LR

Getting there: MONA, on the Berriedale peninsula, can be accessed from downtown Hobart via a 30-minute ferry or express bus. Open every day but Tuesdays (www.mona.net.au). Admission for non-Tasmanian adults is $20.

 

COUNTRY

Sniff the truffles

Margaret River, Western Australia

Why would you travel to see a lump of black fungus? Because a freshly unearthed Perigord truffle is the sniff of a lifetime.

Truffle-hunting tours at the Wine & Truffle Company's Manjimup estate take place in winter when the valuable crop is at its aromatic zenith. The nose isn't the only sense that comes away satisfied; the estate is gorgeous on the eye, especially when the wood smoke is lying low in the truffiere of 13,000 hazelnut and oak trees. The ear is occupied with the crunch of fallen hazelnuts, kookaburras cackling in old gums and the trained truffle dogs snuffling for pay dirt.

Then the soils are dug and a Perigord comes to light. The truffle is sliced through with a knife and held out for your approval - and the chance to sniff deeply, hopefully to fix it in the memory.

Naturally, the palate is not left wanting. The estate has a lakeside restaurant serving truffle in a variety of interpretations (including ice-cream), while a cellar door sells fresh truffles (in season) and last year's harvest (in cryovac).

If the $3-a-gram fungus is too rich for your tastes, bag a $17 jar of truffle-infused sea salt. It's the simplest way for even the most inept cook to strike a gourmet pose. - MA

Getting there: The Wine & Truffle Company (wineandtruffle.com.au) runs truffle-hunt tours from June 1 to August 31 on Saturdays and Sundays. From Perth, drive to Manjimup (3hr 30min); alternatively, tour operator Sean Blocksidge takes four-wheel-drive tours of the Margaret River region (www.margaretriverdiscovery.com.au).

Scratch the surface at Coober Pedy

South Australia

It's weird - but that's what makes it wonderful. Coober Pedy, in arid desert country, isn't beautiful in a traditional sense yet rewards those prepared to scratch the surface. Many of the 3500 residents of the ''opal capital of the world'' have a prospecting yarn to share - of fortunes lost and won and lost again. Their warmth and hospitality are legendary - don't be surprised to find invitations extended for coffee, a look around a dugout home or even to join choir practice in a dugout church.

Catch a little opal fever by noodling (fossicking) through pits of potch (common opal) outside the Old Timers Mine or play a round on the grassless golf course. At sunset, head north of town with a bottle of bubbles to toast the Breakaways, a striking outcrop of sandstone mesas. The region's surreal landscape has long attracted filmmakers - Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was filmed around here and the spaceship from the Vin Diesel sci-fi thriller, Pitch Black, has permanently crash-landed in the main street. And enjoy the best sleep of your life in the womb-like dugout rooms of the Desert Cave Hotel or the curvier, more bohemian spaces of the Underground Motel. - KL

Getting there: Coober Pedy is about 850 kilometres north of Adelaide (www.cooberpedy.net); Rex Airlines flies from Adelaide (2hr). Lodgings include the Underground Motel (theundergroundmotel.com.au) and the Desert Cave Hotel (www.desertcave.com.au).

Drift-snorkel in a rainforest

Mossman River, Queensland

The 900,000-hectare Wet Tropics World Heritage Area is one of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, yet I'm drifting face-down in the Mossman River, near Port Douglas, and wondering how much I'll see.

Led by our guides, Barnaby Marris and the aptly named Michaela Flood, I adjust my snorkel and mask and launch into the swift current in hip-deep water. They call it drift-snorkelling, no flippers required.

I spot river perch in the clear, sweet-tasting river. Freshwater turtles cross my path, scurrying like old folk across a busy road. There are platypus hereabouts, though they avoid the traffic. When we pause at the riverside, blue-breasted kingfishers flit between trees and fluorescent turquoise Ulysses butterflies sashay past. The forest is thick with sound: the buzz of cicadas, birds whooping, the tinkle of the river.

At one point we turn onto our backs, floating through patches of refracted sunlight, gazing up at the radiant canopy. It is serene yet thrilling, my breath another sound in the world's oldest rainforest. - DS

Getting there: Back Country Bliss Adventures (www.backcountryblissadventures.com.au) has three-hour river drift-snorkelling tours.

Rethink the humble watermelon

Chinchilla Melon Festival, Queensland

In 1994, producers and business owners in the Darling Downs town of Chinchilla (population 4000) confronted a crippling drought with a dose of surrealism. Throwing a melon festival, their intention was to promote the local produce - which constitutes a large percentage of the country's melon supply - and boost morale.

Cut to 2009, 15 years and nine festivals later, when Queensland melon picker John Allwa set a Guinness World Record by smashing 47 melons with his head in a single minute. The ecstatic applause, the celebratory shopfronts in green and pink, the thousands of visitors and the Melon Ironman all suggest the idea turned out to be pretty effective.

The Chinchilla Melon Festival is a rare event, managing to be both an emblem of small-town Australia and a celebration welcoming people from around the world. The weekend is kicked off with a rodeo but, by late afternoon on the second day, revellers are skiing in watermelon boots, joining pip-spitting competitions and bungy jumping sideways into a mountain of pulp. Unabashedly ridiculous, it's also utterly charming - a chance to embrace silliness and enjoy the fruits of one's labour. - LR

Getting there: Chinchilla is 300 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The next festival is February 14-17, 2013 (melonfest.com.au).

Stay in convict splendour

Tasmania

The state's lodging scene has gone from drab to fab as a clutch of boutique hotels have opened in convict-built Georgian- and Regency-era buildings. The trend began in 2006 with the Islington Hotel. The South Hobart mansion has stunning views of Mount Wellington from its gardens, 11 stylish guest rooms and a gallery's worth of art hung in the dining and lounge rooms, including a Picasso, a Whiteley and the country's oldest tapestry.

Two years later the industrial-chic 56-room Henry Jones Art Factory Hotel opened in the former IXL jam factory at Sullivans Cove on Hobart's picturesque waterfront. At Hagley, a rural area near Launceston, the 1828 Anglo-Indian mansion Quamby Estate is being overhauled by the Anthology Collection. For now there are 12 plush guest rooms and a spacious verandah surrounded by giant oak trees for an evening tipple. And there's the Priory Country Lodge in the historical farming village of Bothwell. Work on the former convent began in 1848 but was delayed after the parish priest ran off with the construction funds. These days the four-room lodge, with lounge, library and newly built barbecue shed, is perfect for group weekends away. - LT

Getting there: The Islington (www.islingtonhotel.com), Henry Jones Art Hotel (www.thehenryjones.com) and Priory Country Lodge can be accessed from Hobart airport; Bothwell is 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart. Quamby Estate (www.quambyestate.com.au) is 20 minutes' drive from Launceston.

Imbibe the pioneering spirit

The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, Queensland

Drive far enough west in Queensland and the landscape empties deceptively. Though it seems to hold little but scrub and rust-red soil, the place is riddled with legends. This is the birthplace of the Labor Party, at the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine. It's the home, for 100 million years, of a pliosaur called Kronosaurus, larger than a tyrannosaurus rex and found fossilised near Richmond. The Australian Aerial Medical Service got off the ground at Cloncurry, becoming indispensable for its legendary flying doctors. And this is where drovers, pastoralists and outback pioneers worked, their lives becoming a much-cherished chapter in Australia's story.

The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, at Longreach, grounds this chapter in gritty, fascinating detail. Housed in a building inspired by the silos and water tanks around it, this stellar museum, dreamed up by people such as Hugh Sawrey and R.M. Williams, includes tributes to female aviators, frontier families and ''unsung heroes from the pages of history''. Life in the outback is lovingly rendered - but rarely romanticised. ''Banjo the poet got a bit of it,'' reads a panel on the wall, ''except he left out the flies, and the bulldust, and the empty bellies, and the rain that can soak your bones to a chill. Apart from that it's pretty good then.'' - LR

Getting there: Open daily, the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame is on the outskirts of Longreach (www.outbackheritage.com.au). Qantas flies daily from Brisbane.

Sleep in prison

Maria Island, Tasmania

The painted cliffs at Maria Island.

Before Port Arthur, there was Maria Island, a convict station in the sea, which earned such a reputation for ill-discipline and runaways it was closed in 1832 and replaced by Port Arthur. The buildings remained, and travellers can brave the ghosts of yesteryear by bunking down in the former penitentiary at Darlington.

Accommodation is almost as spartan as it was in convict times (but would it really be a prison experience if there was a pillow menu?). There's no electricity; showers and toilets are a short walk away; and rooms have nothing but bunks and a table, with the added luxury of a wood heater.

Step outside your cell door at dawn or dusk into the relics of Maria's fascinating convict and industrial history, and see some of the most prolific and visible wildlife in the country on the lawn. Forester kangaroos and wombats graze beside Cape Barren geese.

It's a short walk from the prison to two very different cliff scenes: the swirling sandstone patterns of the Painted Cliffs to the south; and the Fossil Cliffs, composed of millions of Permian-era shellfish fossils, to the north. - AB

Getting there: The Maria Island Ferry runs twice daily from Triabunna on Tasmania's east coast (www.mariaislandferry.com.au). Penitentiary accommodation must be booked in advance (www.parks.tas.gov.au/?base=3495).

Explore Australia's oldest settlement

Lake Condah, Victoria

In an undulating wetland threaded with waterways are the remains of a settlement that is older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. ''The stone houses in this village dispel the myth that Aborigines were all nomadic,'' says my guide, Ben C. Church, whose Gunditjmara ancestors inhabited these wetlands for thousands of years. His people didn't just live here - they developed one of the most sophisticated aquaculture systems of their time, shaping 60 square kilometres of swampland with channels, ponds and traps in order to farm eels. Archaeological evidence dates some fish-trap systems at 6700 years old.

''The lake was like a giant pantry,'' Church says, ''and the eels were traded right across southern Australia. The system shows Aborigines were not just hunter-gatherers.''

Although I'd barely heard of Lake Condah before my visit, I come away feeling that these scattered ruins are among the most significant indigenous sites on the continent. They're currently under consideration for World Heritage status. - DS

Getting there: Lake Condah is about 40 kilometres north of Portland in western Victoria. Sharp Airlines flies from Melbourne to Portland. Budj Bim Tours has day trips to Lake Condah with Gunditjmara guides (www.budjbimtours.com).

One for the road

Tasmania

Tasmania's wine industry is flourishing, with more than 250 vineyards now peppering the island. Many are small family affairs producing a few thousand bottles a year, most of which don't leave the state. That's good news for artisanal wine hunters.

The viticulture association Wine Tasmania has established four self-drive wine routes to help travellers find the better-known vineyards. The Tamar Valley Route skirts the rolling farmland north of Launceston, known for similar climatic conditions to Champagne in France. The rich, volcanic soils of the North-West Wine Route surrounding Devonport are best expressed in Barringwood Park's peppery pinot noirs. Head to the Southern Wine Route for the terroirs flanking the Derwent, Coal and Huon valleys, each famed for their long ripening periods and zesty cold-climate whites. The warmer, picturesque east coast is Tasmania's newest wine region; don't miss Freycinet Vineyard's earthy, Burgundy-style pinot noirs. Many of the wineries listed with Wine Tasmania have restaurants and lodgings. Keep an eye out for cellar doors not listed, where the guy pouring the tastings is likely to be the winemaker, offering treasure hunters the best drops of all. - LT

Getting there: Tasmania's wine routes are accessed via Hobart, Launceston or Devonport airports (www.winetasmania.com.au).

Follow the lead of the first Australians

The Bama Way, Queensland

When Captain Cook struck a reef off north Queensland, he rather cantankerously called the area Cape Tribulation, ''because here began all our troubles''. Looking towards land, he would have seen an unbroken wall of green - the Daintree Rainforest. He wouldn't have seen the staggering diversity of life, with some species as old as the dinosaurs. Nor would he have appreciated the rich history all along the coast of an indigenous people defined by their relationship to the land.

Stretching from Cairns to Cooktown, the Bama Way, a themed trail of significant indigenous sites, restores some of this history for a modern audience. Adventure North Australia has partnered with three Aboriginal-owned tour companies to package a gripping cross-section of cultures. On road trips from one to three days, travellers practise spear-throwing on a beach, then hunt mud crabs in a mangrove; they learn about Bloomfield Falls and the bounty of the rainforest, from food to medicine; they even visit ancestral art sites. But mostly it's about stories - and what better storytellers than the people who have dreamed about this place for the longest time? - LR

Getting there: The Bama Way (bamaway.com.au), from Cairns or Port Douglas to Cooktown, can be seen as a whole or in sections.

Go green in the Grampians

Victoria

The Grampians YHA Eco Hostel was waving the ecotourism flag long before it became fashionable. Built in 2000, it's still a model of environmentally friendly design: a passive-solar, rammed-earth structure with solar hot water, rainwater tanks, state-of-the-art energy-saving measures, free-range chooks and an organic vegetable garden. All without compromising on comfort. It's a place where nature follows you home after a day in the outdoors, with some of the nation's best rock-climbing being little more than stone's throw away. - LS

Getting there: Grampians YHA Eco Hostel is in Halls Gap, in the Grampians National Park, 260 kilometres west of Melbourne (www.yha.com.au).

Tell ghost stories in a ghost town

Yerranderie, NSW

When Warragamba Dam was created as a water source for Sydney in the 1950s, there were more casualties than some eucalypts in the Burragorang Valley. The entire town of Yerranderie was drained of residents, though the abandonment began decades earlier with the closure of local silver mines. Deep in the Blue Mountains National Park on the Oberon-Colong historic stock route, the town fell silent.

A second life came courtesy of Valerie Lhuede, who acquired Yerranderie from her father and restored it as a private museum. She received an Order of Australia for her sustained efforts, and she donated the town to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in March last year.

A visit to Yerranderie is a strange experience, like dropping out of time. Staying in either the Post Office Lodge or Slippery Norris Cottage (once home to a Gallipoli veteran), travellers find artefacts from a bygone era: an overgrown graveyard, a kewpie doll, bellows in the fireplace. This is a museum of the classic sort; objects are allowed to speak for themselves, with little in the way of framing explanations. A sense of long-held secrets is pervasive.

There is good hiking around Yerranderie and space for Sunday barbecues, but for a truly immersive experience, pack an overnight bag - and bring a friend. - LR

Getting there: Yerranderie is about 250 kilometres west of Sydney via Oberon in the Blue Mountains (5hr 30min drive). The last 60 kilometres are unsealed, so check conditions with the caretaker after heavy rain, and book accommodation online (www.yerranderie.com).

Raft the Franklin River

Tasmania

Few waterways have evoked such passion as the Franklin River. In the early 1980s it was the focus of a defining environmental blockade, a battle for which rafters today can be thankful. Inside the river's catchment there's not a single settlement or patch of cultivated land - it's pure wilderness, and yet it's never more than 150 kilometres from Hobart.

Rafting trips begin on the Collingwood River, beside the Lyell Highway, from where it's a short paddle to its confluence with the Franklin. For the next eight days or so, rafters follow the 125-kilometre length of the Franklin to the Gordon River, camping on the riverbanks at night.

The riverscape fluctuates from millponds, such as the deep and still Irenabyss Gorge, to the maelstrom of the Great Divide, where rafts are portaged over gut-churning rapids. For those who have been inspired by imagery from the blockade, Rock Island Bend - the scene of the famous Peter Dombrovskis photo that fronted the anti-dam campaign - is about a day's paddling past the Great Ravine, followed immediately by Newland Cascades, the longest rapid of the river. - AB

Getting there: World Expeditions has nine- and 11-day rafting trips on the Franklin River departing from Hobart (www.worldexpeditions.com.au).

 

COAST

Go bare in the Whitsundays

Queensland

The Whitsunday Islands offer some of the world's finest sailing, with a holy trinity of winds, seas and scenery to rival the Caribbean.

Bareboating is the business of chartering a ''bare'' boat. You fill it with provisions and friends and head into the heavenly inlets and bays of the group's 74 isles (69 of which are uninhabited).

The big surprise is you don't need any experience to take the helm of a yacht (frisky), a catamaran (stable) or a motor cruiser (sedate). Companies such as Cumberland Charter Yachts will entrust you with a million-dollar vessel provided you undergo a four-hour briefing on basic sailing and respond to their twice-daily radio schedule to say where you are and where you're going.

If you have sheets and halyards but don't know one from the other, you can sail with a skipper for a few hours on the first day and learn all you need. Put him/her ashore and off you go for days of island exploration, snorkelling among reef fish and mooring for sunset cocktails.

After a week of this you'll be almost conflicted - relaxed into a happy stupor, but seized also by the urge to grab the nearest stranger and cry: ''I DID IT!'' - MA

Getting there: Cumberland Charter Yachts (www.ccy.com.au) has 26 vessels based in the marina at Airlie Beach; the nearest airport is Proserpine. Ask them to provision ahead of your arrival or DIY when you get there. Prices are more reasonable than you'd expect, especially when shared between y'hearties (from $525 a night for a six-person yacht).

Take an edible road trip

East coast, Tasmania

Spend a week driving up Tasmania's east coast from Hobart to St Helens and the road is your pantry: strawberries picked at Sorrell's Fruit Farm, home-made scallop pies in Bicheno, oysters and crusty Leavenbank organic bread from St Helens. Take things up a notch by renting an environmentally friendly campervan and you'll be cooking with gas, white wine and a knob of butter, throwing open the back doors to set a (folding) table overlooking the ocean. Spend a sunny afternoon at Apsley Gorge Vineyard's shed-like cellar door by the sea in Bicheno, enjoying freshly cooked crays and pinot noir; or splash out and stay at Saffire, the luxury lodge on the Freycinet Peninsula, where floor-to-ceiling views of the Hazards Range complement head chef Hugh Whitehouse's inspired menus celebrating east coast produce. Back on the road, the finest picnic spot in the state is just a wrong turn away: a place to spread a rug on a flame-orange rock by the ocean, enjoy your edible souvenirs and reflect on how good life tastes. - LS

Getting there: KEA campervans and motorhomes can be picked up in Melbourne and taken to Devonport on the Spirit of Tasmania (keacampers.com, spiritoftasmania.com.au). Saffire is 195 kilometres north of Hobart (saffire-freycinet.com.au).

Stowaway on a cargo ship

Cape York, Queensland

Avoid the bumpy roads to Cape York by taking to the sea, sailing around Australia's northern tip on board the country's last passenger-carrying cargo ship, the 81-metre Trinity Bay. The journey from Cairns to Seisia, catering for up to 35 passengers, provides a glimpse of a rarely seen coastline, reefs, cays and marine life, and the crew's view.

Luxury cruising it isn't. The Trinity Bay is foremost a working ship, delivering an experience rather than a pampering. Cabins are akin to train compartments with portholes, and pub-style dinners - with three choices of main courses - are served from bains-marie. Passengers are restricted to guest areas (cabins, dining room, TV room and licensed bar), the bridge and some upper-deck space overlooking shipping containers.

Highlights of the two-day trip include stops at Thursday Island and Lloyd Bay, where cargo is offloaded to a barge for the Aboriginal community of Lockhart River; and passing Possession Island, where a plaque marks the spot where James Cook claimed Australia's east coast as British territory. - AB

Getting there: The Trinity Bay departs Cairns every Friday and returns from Seisia on Monday (www.seaswift.com.au). It can carry vehicles for travellers who want to drive to Cape York and return by sea, or vice versa.

Flutter on the King Island Races

Tasmania

King Island might be celebrated for its cheese, but six kilometres south of the famed dairy is a racecourse with a unique claim to racing fame. At this 1600-metre, wind-blown grass track, with its grandstand built on a dune, the seven meetings of the summer race season feature gallopers and pacers on the one card. It's true country racing - horses have been known to be scratched for reasons as simple as a jockey being too sunburnt to ride. - AB

Getting there: Rex flies from Melbourne to King Island (50min). The racing season is December-January; the highlight event is the New Year's Day King Island Cup (www.kiracing.com.au).

 

Wake up with nesting turtles

Wilson Island, Queensland

A green-black boulder has washed ashore. You look away, sip your daiquiri, look back. The boulder has moved, and it's hauling itself slowly across the soft sand towards you. On Wilson Island, at the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, even sunset drinks on the beach include nesting turtles, between November and March, which makes this island hideaway more wildly luxurious than most.

You might come for the six safari-style tents, the king-sized beds, the personal chef and the promise of only 12 people on the island at a time. But Wilson's winning act is the seamless blend of comfort and connection to the natural wonders beyond your canvas walls: muttonbirds cooing you to from under the floorboards, noddy terns nesting in the branches beside your tent, the company of eagle rays, reef sharks and tropical fish every time you snorkel off the beach.

And, of course, there are encounters with nesting turtles that prompt you to wake before dawn, wander along a sandy track to the beach and sit quietly on the sand to watch them - until it's time to stroll back to the longhouse for French toast and freshly brewed coffee. - LS

Getting there: Wilson Island is in Capricornia Cays National Park, a boat ride (2hr 30min) from Gladstone via Heron Island (www.wilsonisland.com). Qantas flies to Gladstone from Brisbane.

 

Curl up in a lighthouse

Montague Island, NSW

A stay at the lighthouse on Montague Island, on the south coast, blends encounters with whales, fur seals, dolphins and seabirds with conservation work. It's splendid isolation with a purpose. Spend a couple of hours a day painting penguin boxes (12,000 little penguins come ashore nightly), plant native seedlings or help with seabird surveys, then tour the lighthouse, commune with silver gulls and albatross, sit on a windswept rock or curl up with a book in the 19th-century lighthouse-keeper's house, surrounded by sea and solitude. - LS

Getting there: Montague Island is nine kilometres off the coast at Narooma and 350 kilometres south of Sydney. Conservation Volunteers (www.conservationvolunteers.com.au) runs two-night eco-tours including lighthouse accommodation and boat transfers.

 

Plunge into a private pool at Qualia

Hamilton Island, Queensland

On the edge ... poolside at Qualia.

Qualia does many things brilliantly: food by chef Alastair Waddell, signature spa treatments, cocktails at sunset in the Long Pavilion. But it's especially good at being still - passive, almost - so the dazzling beauty of the Whitsunday Islands can have its full effect.

Nowhere does this work better than in the Windward suites on the steep north face of the Hamilton Island resort.

Each is a long wall of glass holding back airconditioned luxuries (egg-shaped bath, double shower, champagne buckets etc); at one end you step from the cream carpet of the lounge into the water of a private plunge pool. It's big enough to execute a few swimming strokes, but this would be to miss the point because its true focus is the sharp edge over which the pool spills. Lean on it, feel the cool water on your elbows and the warm sun on your face - then look down on gum canopies, palm trees, a beach with a quiet restaurant, the turquoise Coral Sea and the darkly forested slopes of other islands.

It's hard to compete with views such as these. Qualia is clever because it doesn't. - MA

Getting there: Qualia (www.qualia.com.au) has 60 suites. Virgin Australia flies direct to Hamilton from Sydney and Brisbane; Jetstar flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne.

 

Fish with the locals

Port Bradshaw, Northern Territory

This is an honest, raw experience in which you sit (usually in white sand before a bay of palest blue) with a Gumatj family who are just doing what they do - living on the traditional land they call Bawaka.

The comforts in their beachside shacks are stripped to essentials (at night you swag on bare boards), but it's rather like ''desert island'' life, and part of your day is dedicated to finding food.

Men accompany head man Djawa Burarrwanga, carrying spears and nets to fishing grounds five kilometres away. There you fish - hard - pulling in mullet, sharks, even rays. Sometimes there's a break to cook, and a chance also for Djawa to share knowledge and bridge some cultural divides. (Bawaka frequently hosts company execs on cultural awareness programs.)

Women stay at the shacks, learning women's business under the tutelage of Laklak, collecting bush tucker in the mangroves, dyeing fibres and weaving. At night there's feasting around fires. Sometimes a guitar is strummed and the ''pet'' saltwater crocodile, Nike, glides around a headland and hauls itself up the beach.

The spirit of this place is absolutely right and the experience a privilege. - MA

Getting there: Qantas flies from Darwin to Nhulunbuy; the Bawaka people will transfer you to their homeland (www.lirrwitourism.com.au/bawaka-itinerary). It's open year-round, though access during the wet season can be problematic.

 

Paddle through the Noosa Everglades

Queensland

Hastings Street isn't the only thing that's smooth about Noosa. Flowing through Great Sandy National Park, the stout-dark waters of the Noosa River offer one of the most relaxing flat-water kayak or canoe trips in the country. On most days the river is as still as meditation, throwing perfect reflections of the paperbarks, casuarinas and native hibiscus that line the banks.

A paddling trip begins in shallow Lake Cootharaba; an hour later you're at Fig Tree Lake, its entrance carpeted in water lilies. The river's great joys lie beyond Fig Tree Lake as you enter the Narrows, where the paperbark everglades suddenly close in over the water - at times you can almost reach out and touch both banks. The river squirms north through sandy country, and the biggest decision is how far to paddle. Along the banks are 10 campsites that offer utter privacy; from Boreen Point on Lake Cootharaba, it's about 40 kilometres to the final camping ground, which should take most paddlers two days.

For a leg stretch, pull up at Camp 3 and wander to the Cooloola Sandpatch, a large sand blow parting the forest atop the high dunes. - AB

Getting there: Guided paddles and independent kayak hire are available from Kanu Kapers in Boreen Point (www.kanukapersaustralia.com), about 25 kilometres north of Noosa Heads. 


THREE OF THE BEST

BEST HIKES

Cape to Cape Track

Western Australia

Margaret River is famous for its wines and whales but it might equally be known for this walk. Stretching 135 kilometres between the lighthouses at Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin, it spans the length of the Margaret River coast, dipping to beaches, climbing above cliffs and briefly detouring into an isolated stand of karri forest, where the trunks are tall and as straight as barcodes. Though the vineyards aren't in view of the track, peer out to sea from the cliffs between June and December and you're likely to see the whales. - AB

Getting there: Cape Naturaliste is 260 kilometres south of Perth. Cape to Cape Explorer Tours specialises in this walk (www.capetocapetours.com.au; www.capetocapetrack.com.au).

Thorsborne Trail

Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland

Australia's largest island national park is the tropical postcard brought to life: coconut palms, white-sand (and black-sand) beaches, the pummel of a waterfall on your shoulders. It barely even sounds like a bushwalk, which is probably the reason most people stretch this 32-kilometre walk across four days. Don't miss the side trail to Nina Peak for views along a particularly enticing sliver of coast. Only 40 walkers at a time are permitted on the trail, which flanks Hinchinbrook's east coast, so book permits well in advance. - AB

Getting there: Qantas and Virgin Australia fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Townsville, then it's 165 kilometres to Cardwell, the main access to Hinchinbrook Island. Book permits at www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks/hinchinbrook-thorsborne/about.html.

Jatbula Trail

Northern Territory

This six-day wilderness hike through the tropical Top End in the footsteps of the Jawoyn people is one of Australia's best, and least-known, walks. It's hot, but every day ends with a dip in a croc-free swimming hole or waterfall, beside which you'll be camping. Not that you need a tent in the dry season - just a sleeping bag and a mosquito net suspended from the branch of a salmon gum, so you can fall asleep gazing at galaxies. It's remotest Australia at its simplest. - LS

Getting there: World Expeditions runs six-day hikes on the Jatbula Trail in Nitmiluk National Park, May-September, starting at Katherine Gorge, 310 kilometres south of Darwin (www.worldexpeditions.com.au). Trekkers carry up to 15 kilograms; pre-trip training is recommended.

 

BEST FOR KIDS

Water, water, everywhere

Gold Coast, Queensland

When it comes to keeping pint-sized thrillseekers happy, not much beats the Gold Coast's flashy theme and water parks. Budget-conscious parents can bundle Dreamworld with WhiteWater World next door, or buy a combination pass for Sea World, Warner Bros. Movie World and Wet'n'Wild. For simpler pleasures, head to Southport's brilliant three-kilometre-long Broadwater Parklands. Here children can find free thrills zooming along on the flying fox, taking the monorail pedal bikes for a spin or exploring the fantastical saltwater rock pools and sculptural creek beds. - KL

Getting there: The ''big five'' fun parks are north of Surfers Paradise between The Spit and Coomera (www.dreamworld.com.au, www.myfun.com.au). Broadwater Parklands is at Marine Parade, Southport (www.gcparks.com.au).

Catch double-headers

Venus Bay, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

Kids hate fishing because invariably nothing happens. Turn this on its head at the holiday town of Venus Bay on the Eyre Peninsula. Unofficial wisdom says the old curved jetty off Venus Bay offers the best fishing in the country, and it's true - if your bait is fresh (a bit of pilchard on No.10 hooks), you'll haul 'em in. My eight-year-old boys were reeling in tommy ruffs every few minutes, including the fabled ''double-header'', which is two fish taking both hooks on a single line. - MA

Getting there: Fly Qantas or Rex to Port Lincoln via Adelaide, then hire a car to drive along the spectacular west coast of the Eyre Peninsula. It's a 21/2-hour drive, if you're not stopping at deserted beaches and the famous ''swimming with dolphins and seals'' experience at Baird Bay (www.bairdbay.com). The jolly Venus Bay Caravan Park (www.venusbaycaravanparksa.com.au) sells fishing gear and has very social fish-cleaning stations.

Talk to the animals

Collingwood Children's Farm, Melbourne, Victoria

This is a community farm on a bend of the Yarra in the city's heart that's straight from the pages of a bedtime storybook. Children can milk a cow (daily 10am and 4pm), waddle with ducks, feed chooks and meet Mickie the donkey and little Maybelle and Myrtle in the pigsty. Goats, sheep, horses, geese, peacocks - all the farmyard animals are here. BYO gumboots. Udderly wonderful. - DJ

Getting there: At 18 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford (www.farm.org.au). Open daily 9am-5pm; a farmers' market is held on the second Saturday of the month.

 

BEST BY BICYCLE

Murray to Mountains Rail Trail

Victoria

Pedal to plate .. refuel at Beechworth on the gourmet Murray to Mountains Rail Trail.

It's hard to decide whether the best thing about Australia's premier rail trail, which threads through the Ovens Valley from Wangaratta to Bright, is the cycling or the food and wine. Take the side trail to Beechworth for quality restaurants and accommodation, or veer a few kilometres off the trail to the gastronomic pickings of the Milawa gourmet region. Or simply stay on the 84-kilometre main trail to indulge at Gapsted Wines, Bright Berry Farms and the Bright Brewery, among other places. The most difficult bit might be getting back on the bike. - AB

Getting there: For maps, tour operators and food and wine details, see www.murraytomountains.com.au.

Rottnest Island

Western Australia

With its roads open only to buses and bicycles, few places are as bike friendly as Perth's island playground. Beginning at the ferry terminal at Thomson Bay, it's a 28-kilometre loop around Rotto and its 63-plus beaches. Park at the bike racks and enjoy the reefs at Stark Bay, or snorkel the underwater trail at Little Salmon Bay. For a shorter ride, the section of road around Parker Point and Salmon Bay is the most spectacular. - AB

Getting there: Ferries run regularly between Perth and Rottnest Island (30min) and will carry bicycles, or you can hire one of 1300 bikes on the island (www.rottnestisland.com).

Mawson Trail

South Australia

Pedal from the centre of Adelaide to the heart of the Flinders Ranges, following a marked mountain-bike trail for 900 kilometres through some of South Australia's most distinctive regions: the Barossa and Clare valleys, Burra and Wilpena Pound. Some sections are remote and long but towns pop up frequently along other stretches, making it feasible to cycle short routes. Recommended sections are the Riesling Trail through the Clare Valley, and the Mawson Trail's end from Wilpena to Blinman, heading through Bunyeroo Valley with its classic views back to the Pound. - AB

Getting there: A series of nine Mawson Trail maps can be bought from Bike SA (www.bikesa.asn.au).

 

BEST ENCOUNTERS WITH BIG CREATURES

Swim with whale sharks

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

You'll never forget your first underwater vision of a whale shark. There's a plane circling overhead and when it spots a shark, passengers on a boat bobbing below, near Ningaloo Reef, don snorkelling gear and jump in. When the bubbles clear, there's a harmless giant steaming out of the deep blue straight at us, its huge mouth agape, hoovering plankton. We watch in awe as the largest fish in the sea eases past us, a constellation of spots running the length of its 10-metre body, glinting in the morning sun. - DS

Getting there: Between April and July, Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours (www.kingsningalooreeftours.com.au) has day-long whale-shark tours from Exmouth, a two-hour flight north of Perth.

Commune with sea lions

Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island, South Australia

What's the size of a small car, weighs 300 kilograms and feasts on squid? An Australian sea lion bull, several of which we pass on a ranger-led tour of Seal Bay. But it's not these dozing behemoths that capture our attention - it's their doe-eyed offspring, flopping about on the beach, bleating for their mothers. When one mother arrives home after a fishing trip, her famished pup hurries towards her. The pair nuzzle each other, a sight to melt any heart. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, Australian sea lions are still endangered so an afternoon in their company is something to cherish. - DS

Getting there: Seal Bay Conservation Park is on the south coast of Kangaroo Island, a 35-minute flight from Adelaide (www.environment.sa.gov.au/sealbay/Home)

Dive with sharks

Port Lincoln, South Australia

Standing almost nose-to-conical nose with a 4.5-metre great white shark, staring into its deadly grin, fills me with admiration rather than fear. This creature was so perfect 70 million years ago it had no need to evolve further. As it flashes past, I have never felt smaller in my life, nor more grateful to be inside a strengthened aluminium cage. - DS

Getting there: Calypso Star Charters (www.sharkcagediving.com.au) runs one-day great white shark tours to the Neptune Islands, 70 kilometres off Port Lincoln, a 50-minute flight from Adelaide. No scuba experience necessary (air is fed into the cage, beside a boat, via a hose).

 

BEST AT NIGHT

Light up at South Cape Bay

Tasmania

The Northern Lights on the other side of the world get all the attention. Yet the Southern Lights, or aurora australis, are spectacular and can be seen from the southern coast of Tasmania. Drive to the road's end at Cockle Creek and walk to South Cape Bay. The chances of seeing the Southern Lights in Tasmania are slim, but the absence of artificial light and the southern outlook can only help. - AB

Getting there: From Hobart, drive 120 kilometres south to Cockle Creek, at the start of the South Coast Track. From here, it's a two-hour walk to South Cape Bay, where there's a campsite.

Camping under the stars

Coonabarabran, NSW

It's not easy to wake a 10-year-old at 2am, tell him he must leave his warm sleeping bag and tent and stumble out into the night (not for nothing was the Siding Spring Observatory built nearby). But the expression on his face is worth it when he sees that the eerily clear night sky is filled to bursting with billions of twinkling, amazing stars. That boy is 21 now, and still remembers that night. He also remembers the newly born joey that came lolloping comically into camp the next morning, watched by its wary mother. Now, that's camping. - Keith Austin

Getting there: Warrumbungle National Park (www.warrumbungleregion.com.au) is 36 kilometres west of Coonabarabran and 500 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

Tali Wiru experience

Uluru, Northern Territory

More intimate than the Sounds of Silence outdoor dinner near Uluru, the new Tali Wiru (''beautiful dune'' in Anangu) desert dining experience begins with champagne and canapes for up to 20 diners. Then it's tables for two (or four, or six) atop a rust-red dune with views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Think white linen, candles and a chandelier of stars. The four-course menu pairs dishes such as wattleseed-rubbed kangaroo carpaccio with premium Australian wines, until a campfire beckons for after-dinner Dreamtime stories and hot chocolate. - LS

Getting there: Tali Wiru operates nightly (except Tuesdays and Thursdays), with hotel transfers from Ayers Rock Resort an hour before sunset (www.voyages.com.au).

 

BEST ROCK ART

Mount Borradaile

Arnhem Land, Northern Territory

In a remote corner of Arnhem Land, the Borradaile treasures are potent, dramatic and even a touch unsettling. The layers of art date from the present-day Ulba Bunidj to peoples who lived in 48,000 BC, and they adorn sandstone ranges rising from steamy wetlands, which are home also to burial caves with shrouded bones and flitting bats. Prepare to be overwhelmed. - MA

Getting there: Mount Borradaile is under the custody of Max Davidson, who runs tours from his eco lodge (www.arnhemland-safaris.com). Fly to the lodge from Darwin (1hr) or Jabiru (30min), or drive from Darwin (5hr). Entry to Arnhem Land is by permit only.

Wilpena Pound

South Australia

Adnyamathanha legend tells how two giant Dreamtime serpents circled in the desert to form the steep walls of Ikara (Wilpena Pound). One of the joys of a visit is hiking up those walls (the ''ramparts'' - more than 1000 metres above sea level in places) to look across the 17 kilometre-wide uplift. But Arkaroo Rock offers a different perspective. This wind-hollowed rock houses some simple images depicting gathered clans and spirits that date back 5000 years. It's at the base of a rampart with Ikara looming overhead and, intriguingly, looks much like the head of a serpent, with huge hanging fangs. - MA

Getting there: Take the turn-off sign to Arkaroo Rock, about 40 kilometres north of Hawker in the southern Flinders Ranges, then walk an easy trail to the site. Drive from Adelaide to Hawker (5hr) or take a charter flight (1hr).

Ubirr, Kakadu National Park

Northern Territory

Ubirr is the granddaddy of all public art sites, known for its size, glamorous setting (high on rocks above a monster floodplain) and huge visitor numbers. Don't let this last deter you: the galleries are monumental, complex and rich enough to illustrate important cultural chapters. Just as impressive are the Kakadu rangers, who bring an elusive, often abstract, culture into the here and now. Time your visit for the sunset - it's magical. - MA

Getting there: Ubirr is open all day April-November; from 2pm December-March. Kakadu is a one-hour drive from Darwin; tours depart regularly from the city (www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu/visitor-activities/tours.html).

 

BEST DAY WALKS

Kings Canyon Rim Walk

Red Centre, Northern Territory

Wake in the dark, pack plenty of water, set off before dawn - to beat the heat, yes, and to see the morning light show gild the stony landscape, not to mention the early birds. The first part of this six-kilometre walk is the steepest, a stairway to an outback blue sky, then the track skirts Kings Canyon. Less visited than Uluru, it's just as scenic, with sandstone bluffs from which you can peer into the gorge 150 metres below, a mini-Purnululu of domes, 400-year-old cycads and a shady oasis called the Garden of Eden. - LS

Getting there: Kings Canyon is in Watarrka National Park, about halfway between Uluru and Alice Springs (and about 300 kilometres from both, www.travelnt.com). Kings Canyon Resort is seven kilometres from the canyon (www.kingscanyonresort.com.au).

Mount Gower

Lord Howe Island, NSW

Ecological wonder ... Mount Gower, Lord Howe Island.

Climbing anything can be a chore but this upthrust of ecological wonder - poking from the end of Lord Howe Island like some sort of bonus after you've discovered paradise - is worth every minute of the eight hours required to say you've been to the 875-metre summit. Regarded as one of the best day walks in the world, the higher you go the sweeter it gets, ending in a Tolkienesque forest of stunted trees bearded with shaggy green moss. At this point, if you're climbing between November and May, your guide will emit a wild cry, summoning providence petrels, which come crashing through the canopy to land at your feet. These docile birds are happy to be picked up and stroked. It's one of those things you have to see to believe. From the summit, the views extend over the neighbouring peak, Mount Lidgbird, and out to Ball's Pyramid, the world's largest sea stack, rising 565 metres from the Pacific. In the fashion of Lord Howe, this, too, comes with startling natural history: a 2001 expedition found it was harbouring a cigar-sized insect thought to be extinct. A collection of these phasmids is nurtured in the shop at Lord Howe nursery. - MA

Getting there: QantasLink flies from Sydney to Lord Howe (2hr) but be sure to book accommodation beforehand because visitor numbers to the island are limited (www.lordhoweisland.info). There are two specialist operators who lead climbs up Gower. The 14-kilometre walk has some ledge-crossings and a couple of (simple) rope sections.

Blue Gum Forest

Blue Mountains, NSW

It's all downhill from Govetts Leap into the belly of the Blue Mountains, and to this secret garden - a former artists' camp, owned once by the Hordern retail family and bought in 1931 for £130 by bushwalkers. The 16-hectare Blue Gum Forest has been a conservationists' touchstone ever since, and the seven-hour walk to reach its mighty stand of smooth-barked Eucalyptus deanei on the Grose River flats has become a rite of passage among bushwalkers. Chiselled sandstone ramparts tower above and the forest sings with insects, birds, tumbling water. - DJ

Getting there: About 116 kilometres from Sydney central business district in the Blue
Mountains, enter via Govetts Leap and exit at Perrys Lookdown. (www.wildwalks.com).

 

BEST CINEMA SEATS

Deckchair Cinema

Darwin, Northern Territory

Grab a cushion or two, lie back in a hammock-like deckchair and watch the sun set from the edge of Darwin Harbour. The night sky shimmers in anticipation. Then the screen comes to life; foreign films, blockbusters, independent and indigenous flicks, animated shorts - they all get a run here, thanks to the Darwin Film Society. Come early for a pre-movie glass of wine from the kiosk and a vegetable korma, green curry or lentil shepherd's pie. - LS

Getting there: The Deckchair Cinema in Darwin is open nightly through the dry season, until November 18 this year (www.deckchaircinema.com.au).

Open Air Cinema at Mrs Macquarie's Chair

Sydney, NSW

It's synonymous with summertime in Sydney, this cinema where the movie plays second fiddle to the setting, at least until the ''house lights'' fade. Views of Australia's largest city don't get any better than this: the last rays of the sun silhouetting the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House's fin-like sails, boats at anchor. Then - ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats - darkness descends. The skyline sparkles, Botanic Gardens bats begin their nightly migration and the screen rises from the waters of Farm Cove. - LS

Getting there: St George Open Air Cinema operates in January and February. Tickets are available online in December and at the gate each night (www.stgeorgeopenair.com.au).

Christmas Island outdoor cinema

Watching a movie under the tropical night sky on this remote island outpost is the epitome of a laid-back night out. Movies chosen by locals screen every Saturday, monsoonal rain or star-shine, in a modest amphitheatre. The projector is from a Perth drive-in. There's a kiosk but no box office, just a roving cashier with a head torch and a bucket of money. Best of all, ''tickets'' (though there are none) cost an old-fashioned $5 ($2 for kids). For a Cinema Paradiso-like experience, in paradise, join the Christmas Island Cinema Club and visit the projection room afterwards. - LS

Getting there: Christmas Island Cinema screens every at 7.30pm (cinema.org.cx). Virgin Australia flies to Christmas Island from Perth (3hr 30min, www.christmas.net.au).

 

BEST BIGGEST, HIGHEST ...

Monolithic magic

Mount Augustus, Western Australia

From 70 kilometres away, Mount Augustus can be seen on the horizon, smudged by the desert heat haze. The answer to the Trivial Pursuit question: ''What is the largest monolith in Australia?'' is not Uluru. It's Mount Augustus, 2.5 times larger than Uluru and rising 858 metres above the surrounding plain. It has a central ridge almost eight kilometres long and is thought to be 1000 million years old. - BE

Getting there: Located 495 kilometres east of Carnarvon (most of which is unsealed road) and 1395 kilometres from Perth, Mount Augustus is a long drive from anywhere, in a 4WD.

Spy blue whales

Cape Nelson, Victoria

It's a picture of gigantic motherly love. Seen from a helicopter, she appears like a 30-metre turquoise submarine, shepherding her five-metre calf through the Southern Ocean. Finning along just beneath the surface, mother and baby devour the krill stirred up by the Bonney Upwelling, a phenomenon that draws blue whales to these waters between November and May, making it one of the most reliable places to see them. On this flight of a lifetime, we see seven of the largest creatures ever to have lived on earth. - DS

Getting there: Heli-explore has blue-whale safaris by helicopter, departing Peterborough airport on the Great Ocean Road, about 247 kilometres from Melbourne (www.heliexplore.com.au).

Play golf in the bush

Nullarbor Links, Eyre Highway, Western Australia

Billed as the world's longest golf course, the Nullarbor Links adds a new dimension to the phrase ''driving the Nullarbor''. The 18-hole course, stretches the length of the plain, spanning about 1400 kilometres, with a hole at each participating town and roadhouse. Each hole consists of a tee and green, and the fairways are little more than bluebush terrain. - AB

Getting there: Scorecards are available at the Kalgoorlie and Ceduna visitor centres, and can be stamped at each hole (www.nullarborlinks.com).

 

BEST TO SURF

Treachery beach

Seal Rocks, NSW

Despite being a place of pilgrimage for generations of surfers, Treachery beach remains unspoilt, thanks to the winding and partly unsurfaced access road and lack of luxury accommodation. ''Treach'' is a swell magnet, with a gnarled headland at the northern end that sucks in the ocean's energy, converting it to gold on the perfectly groomed sandbanks below. Walking through the dunes while hearing the waves grow closer is a heart-quickener for anyone who loves the ocean. - TE

Getting there: Seal Rocks is 275 kilometres north of Sydney; Treachery beach is three beaches south of Seal Rocks' main beach.

Red Bluff

Western Australia

About 20 years ago photos began trickling out of a place in the remote north of Western Australia that had a curious combination of turquoise water, lunar landscapes and a left-hand barrel to murder for. We now know that place as Red Bluff. On the southern tip of Ningaloo Reef, 1000 kilometres north of Perth, Red Bluff is forbidding, rugged and uncommonly beautiful, a break whose isolation rewards determined surfers with minimal crowds and plenty of options. - TE

Getting there: Red Bluff is 60 kilometres north of Quobba Station homestead (www.quobba.com.au/index.htm), which has accommodation. The homestead is a 90-minute drive north of Carnarvon.

Angourie

NSW

Ever since Albe Falzon filmed parts of Morning of the Earth here in the 1970s, Angourie has encapsulated ''country soul'', its mystique preserved as much by the national park that borders the area as the locals who surf here. The flat, boulder-strewn headland, connected to the coast by a sandy isthmus, produces a big, bowling right-hander that wraps into a bay, offering a selection of barrelling sections and racing walls. - TE

Getting there: Angourie is 647 kilometres north of Sydney, near Yamba.

 

BEST CITY DAY TRIPS

From Melbourne

From the metropolis to the surf mecca of Torquay, to the exclamation marks of the Twelve Apostles, the 243-kilometre Great Ocean Road is a two-lane motoring ritual wending through summer resorts and sleepy fishing towns along a coast of sheer drama, hewn by returned servicemen in 1918-32. Stop at Bells Beach for a surf, at Lorne for lunch, at Wye River for coffee and koala spotting, and at The Ice Cream Tub in Apollo Bay for happiness. Take two days, round Cape Otway, and inhale the salty stories of the Shipwreck Coast. - DJ

Getting there: From Melbourne to Torquay, at the start of the Great Ocean Road, is 100 kilometres; Torquay to Warrnambool is 243 kilometres (www.visitgreatoceanroad.org.au; www.visitvictoria.com).

From Adelaide

Head for the Hills. Twenty minutes' drive from the central business district will get you to Mount Lofty, 900-metres high and with whopping views over the Gulf; thereafter it's village living, wineries and country pastiche. Head for Hahndorf, the historic Prussian settler village with 100 or more heritage buildings in the Main Street alone. Once faux-oompah hell, it's now a lively compote of boutiques, artisan food-making and stein-waving colour. Be sure to put yourself squarely in the picture at the lovely Hahndorf Academy, complete with new museum and craft shop, then head to The Cedars nearby, the former home of artist Sir Hans Heysen. His stone studio among the pine trees is one of the most beatific spaces in Australia. Neighbouring Hahndorf Hill Winery serves sterling views and excellent cool-climate whites; the Lane restaurant - about a kilometre away - is one of South Australia's best and most scenic restaurants. - MA

Getting there: Hire a car from Adelaide airport or arrange a tour with operators such as Taste of South Australia (www.tastesa.com.au) and Rich+Lingering (www.richandlingering.com.au).

From Sydney

There's a reason why so many come so far for beauty. Coach-loads are regularly decanted at Echo Point, near Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, often for their first view of Australia outside Sydney. But there's a better way. Strike out from Echo Point for Ruined Castle, for a faraway view of the Three Sisters and Mount Cloudmaker, and a close-up, perhaps, of lyrebirds, cockatoos and crimson rosellas. If mist descends and ruins outdoor plans, take afternoon tea in the dark-panelled Paragon Cafe in Katoomba, slurp udon noodles at Hana at the top of Leura's main street or hunker down with a mug of something deliciously warm at old-fashioned picture house Mount Vic Flicks. - KL

Getting there: The Ruined Castle walk starts from the Golden Stairs off Narrow Neck; Paragon Cafe, 65 Katoomba Street, Katoomba; Hana Japanese Restaurant, 121 Leura Mall, Leura; Mount Vic Flicks, Harley Avenue, Mount Victoria (www.mountvicflicks.com.au).

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