Australia travel guide: The best attractions and experiences that are still open to tourists in 2020

A frequent visitor to Australia, David Whitley is a leading British travel journalist whose work appears regularly in UK publications The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, National Geographic Traveller and The Mail on Sunday. He is regular contributor to Traveller and traveller.com.au

Hopelessly devoted love affairs don't always start with instant attraction. When I first arrived, way back in September 2001, Australia was merely a convenient vehicle for escape and adventure.

It's the same story for many 21-year-old Brits, straight out of university. They want to disappear for a year, having a marvellous time, and Australia just so happens to be one of the places where you can earn decent money while doing so.

For me, falling under the country's spell took longer, although parts of the jigsaw fell into place during those disgracefully hazy first few months. The outdoor lifestyle, the kangaroos, the magnificent free entertainment of bodysurfing, the Sydney Harbour ferries and the gallons of Bundy and Coke all were initial building blocks.

The rest – the coastal walks, the long drives under endless skies, the constantly riveting colonial history, the fascinating overlap between Dreaming tales and geology, the happily dozy surf towns, the rainforest boardwalks, the open-hearted wineries and mesmerising red dirt – came later.

My year of intended debauchery became five years of contentment in a country that does an incredible line in making you feel like you've found your home. Many of the friends I made have stayed, taking citizenship and creating little Australians of their own.

I returned to the UK for love, but Australia will always be the not-so-secret passionate affair on the side. Under the flimsy guise of work – I spend much of my time writing guides to the country for publications such as The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and National Geographic Traveller – I make an excuse to return twice a year.

In times of sorrow and hardship, it's good to give something back. With the bushfires costing lives, homes and businesses, the last thing the country I love needs is for them to cost tourism revenue, too. So if overseas visitors are tentative about coming, it's time for Australians to pick up the slack and explore an astonishing homeland they perhaps take for granted.

It shouldn't all be about altruism, either. It's about doing yourself a favour, and embracing sights, stories and experiences that are genuinely worth flying from the other side of the world for. And, hopefully, a besotted outsider's perspective can help identify what they are while whetting appetites for looking at old favourites in a different way.

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20 AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCES WORTH FLYING 24 HOURS TO ENJOY

OGLING THE GREAT BARRIER REEF, QUEENSLAND

"Find a cleaning station, and watch to see what comes along," is the advice before plunging into the water. It's fine advice, too, as a procession of fish come to be tidied up by the dutiful cleaner wrasse. One minute, a turtle pops up, next Nemo flits past, followed by enormous shoals of sergeant majors and the occasional lurid parrotfish. Being allowed to join this underwater world feels like the most immense privilege. See quicksilver-cruises.com; queensland.com

EXPLORING LAKE MUNGO, NSW

The pinks, reds and whites of the lunette stack up until the wind shifts them again. They combine to form a mighty crescent dune around the gasping, parched bed of a lake the river systems left behind. Emu footprints are fairly ubiquitous and park rangers mark recently uncovered animal skeletons with three twigs in a triangle. But it's not dead bettongs that make Lake Mungo challenge your view of the world – it's the humans. The discoveries of Mungo Woman and Mungo Man in 1969 and 1974 completely changed views of Aboriginal culture. See mungoguidedtours.com; visitnsw.com

MOOCHING IN MELBOURNE'S LANEWAYS, VICTORIA

What Melbourne has done with its grim bin lanes and service alleys is a world-leading exemplar in urban regeneration. The concentrations of street art, craft beer bars, small restaurants and cocktail joints tucked away in the narrow laneways make Melbourne's CBD a pleasure to explore. Hidden Secrets Tours ($99) pick out the top spots for newcomers. See hiddensecretstours.com; visitvictoria.com

SWEPT UP BY BROOME, WA

Broome rips up the idea of what a seaside town should be. Remnants of the pearling industry crop up every couple of blocks, camels wander down vast tide-morphed beaches, crimson pindan dirt piles up on the dunes, hovercrafts head out to dinosaur footprints, and Asian influence meets the outback. It is radically, satisfyingly different. See visitbroome.com.au; westernaustralia.com

CONTEMPLATING PORT ARTHUR, TASMANIA

A prison within a giant, continental prison, and in a remarkable, isolated setting. The ruins of the Port Arthur penal colony are visually striking, but the stories contained within rumble away in the brain long after leaving. The tale of a convict colony being set up on unknown land on the other side of the world is told in many Australian locations. But here, it feels the ghosts are alongside you as you learn it. See portarthur.org.au; discovertasmania.com.au

SNORKELLING WITH WHALE SHARKS, NINGALOO REEF, WA

Positioning is everything. The skipper manoeuvres the boat to just outside the whale shark's direction of travel. The signal is given, and everyone slides into the water creating as little disturbance as possible. For a moment, there is nothing. And then… oh wow. A gentle giant, its letterbox-like mouth open to hoover up plankton, glides past. The grey of its enormous body stands in contrast to the pristine, deep blue water around it. This one's seven or eight metres long, although they can grow to 12. Despite its size, it is serene, stunning the snorkellers into near stillness. The biggest fish on earth has caught them in a trance. See oceanecoadventures.com.au; westernaustralia.com

FLYING OVER THE HARBOUR, SYDNEY, NSW

From the historic flying boat base at Rose Bay, the seaplane chugs its way off the water. Once up in the air, Sydney Harbour's full magnificence unfurls. The crags and cliffs, the mansions and CBD skyscrapers, the beaches and boats… they all combine for the most magnificent picture. The Sydney Highlights flight with Sydney Seaplanes costs $220. See seaplanes.com.au

CHILLING IN NOOSA, QUEENSLAND

Noosa may well be the perfect resort town. Beaches jut off at all angles to keep surfers happy, the National Park offers koalas and clifftop views, the sandbar-dotted waterways make a perfect kayaker's playground. But it's not just the simple pleasures either – the shopping's independent and high quality, and the food often stellar. See visitnoosa.com.au

CIRCUMNAVIGATING ULURU, NORTHERN TERRITORY

There's a nagging advance suspicion that schlepping all the way to a big red rock in the middle of nowhere is absolutely not worth it. The 10 kilometre Base Walk around the world's most famous monolith dispels that. The well-known postcard image turns out to be one face among thousands. The bulges, the ripples, the water-blackened streaks, the ever-shifting colours, the caves and the gullies where vegetation braves the desert heat all add up to something powerfully mesmerising. See ayersrockresort.com.au; parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru; northernterritory.com

SAILING THE WHITSUNDAYS, QUEENSLAND

By night, the sea's gentle roll brings a contented sleep, though some are still out on deck, gazing towards the heavens. This is what sleeping on board a yacht has over the day trips around the Whitsunday Islands. There are still the same curving white sand beaches to pull up at and the fringing reef to snorkel around. But being on the water for sunset, and having a few beers under the stars, takes the island-hopping to a different level. See reeffree.com.au; visitqueensland.com

TAKING THE INDIAN PACIFIC

Four days, crossing the country on the Indian Pacific (which turns 50 this year), through landscapes that can only be described as beautifully hostile, would be hellish in a car. On a ridiculously long train, guzzling premium wines and eating three-course meals, it becomes something altogether more appealing. See journeybeyondrail.com.au

SCALING MOUNT KOSCIUSZKO, NSW

Reaching the highest point on a continent is always going to be a great boast, even if the stroll through alpine meadows to the top of Mount Kosciuszko is easy-going by global standards. And for Aussies, it's an excuse to enjoy the mountains in summer rather than waiting for the snow. See thredbo.com.au; visitnsw.com

ROAMING ROTTNEST ISLAND, WA

"This beach has one other person on it. I think I'll pedal round to the next." The strategy for getting the best out of Rotto hasn't changed for years: Get the early ferry from Fremantle, hire a bike, and cycle to your very own white sand Indian Ocean beach – in this case, the wildly photogenic Little Parakeet Bay. But the options for filling out the day have improved dramatically. Glass-bottomed sea kayaking adventures, helicopter flights and sailing catamaran cruises can be fitted around the quokka-spotting. See rottnestisland.com; westernaustralia.com

GOING UNDERGROUND IN COOBER PEDY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Big red kangaroos bound past the massive rubble heaps from the opal mines punctuating the salmon pink landscape. Opals may still be inside them if you try your luck. The heat is so fierce that most of the locals live underground – some in homes they'll show off to you. Coober Pedy is the zenith of outback weird. See cooberpedy.com; southaustralia.com

KAYAKING WITH DOLPHINS IN BYRON BAY, NSW

Byron Bay, on the far north coast of NSW not far from the Queensland border, isn't exactly short of an "at one with nature'" schtick, but the real deal comes after battling through the breaking waves. The dolphins emerge, close and curious, with being low down to the water allowing for a greater bond than any dolphin-watching cruise could ever conjure. See capebyronkayaks.com; queensland.com

RAFTING THE FRANKLIN RIVER, TASMANIA

True wilderness, seemingly without human fingerprints, is hard to find. But in Tasmania's green, largely ignored for millennia south, it lives on. The often frothing, raging Franklin River is the way through, with Franklin River Rafting runs epic eight- to 10-day expeditions through the white water. See franklinriverrafting.com; discovertasmania.com

STROLLING THE GREAT COASTAL WALK, SYDNEY

Sydney's secret is that no other world city works so well as both city break and holiday destination. That's partly a looks thing, partly an outdoor mindset thing – and both are best explored on the city's coastal walking tracks. Bondi to Coogee is most famous, Spit Bridge to Manly arguably the most varied. They link with several other day and half-day routes to form the 100 kilometre Great Coastal Walk from the Barrenjoey headland to Cronulla. Just remember to stop for a swim along the way. See sydney.com

BEACH DRIVING ON FRASER ISLAND, QUEENSLAND

The highway is soft under wheel, and a helicopter might land on it at any minute – Fraser Island's Ninety Mile Beach is an exhilarating drive. Expect dunes, gullies and rainbow-coloured rocks to the left, shipwrecks and breaking waves to the right, quite possibly a dingo or two up ahead. The main "road" on the world's largest sand island is a top-grade adventure in itself, and that's before you duck inland to the lakes and rainforest trails. See fraserexplorertours.com.au; queensland.com

CRUISING YELLOW WATER , NORTHERN TERRITORY

Kakadu National Park's appeal is mostly slow-burn. The grand views and ancient rock art at Ubirr and Nourlangie start building into a grander picture. But then, after drifting through the giant lily pads and semi-submerged paperbark forests of the Yellow Water billabong, the electrifying moment happens. From the bank, four metres of ruthless primeval killer wriggles out of a wallow and slides silently into the water. The cruise costs from $79. See kakadutourism.com; northernterritory.com

COOING AT PHILLIP ISLAND'S PENGUINS, VICTORIA

When little penguins waddle too fast, they lose balance, fall over and slide on their bellies. Watching this – preferably at eye level after shelling out a little extra for the underground viewing area – should make even the coldest heart flutter. Penguin Parade tickets costs from $26.60. See visitphillipisland.com

... AND FIVE THAT AREN'T WORTH FLYING AROUND THE PLANET FOR

SYDNEY'S NEW YEAR'S EVE FIREWORKS

It's not the fireworks themselves that are special – you can see spectacular displays in every major world city – it's being able to sit and relax in a park in shorts and a T-shirt for the build-up.

THE COFFEE

We get it. It's very good. It's just not life-changingly good.

MUSIC FESTIVALS

Sadly, you're always going to get much better line-ups in Europe, irrespective of how lovely the chosen Aussie location might be.

LAMINGTONS

How have you managed to take the concept of cake and turn it into a punishment?

THE MELBOURNE CUP

It's. Just. Another. Horse. Race.

10 THINGS AUSTRALIA NEEDS TO FIX

CHECK-OUT TIMES

The global standard is noon. The 10am, far too beloved of Aussie accommodation, is borderline outrageous.

CREDIT CARD SURCHARGES

It's the standard payment method for most visitors – suck up that 1 to 2 per cent per cent as part of the price, you misers.

RESTAURANT SURCHARGES

Same applies to that extra 10 per cent some joints slap on over weekends and holidays. No visitors want to hear griping about how you have to pay staff more.

THE POKIES

Over the last decade or so, big city pubs have got immeasurably better at kicking out the misery machines. Suburbia and bush towns? Not so much. Rule of thumb? The smaller the bar, the better the vibe.

WI-FI SPEEDS

Beyond the big cities, going online can still be a game of roulette if anyone else in the hotel has the audacity to log on.

LICENSING LAWS

Let us buy beer and wine in a convenience store like we can in any civilised country.

SELF-STYLED LARRIKIN TOUR GUIDES

He's a bloody bloke! He's a character! No, he's extremely irritating and prone to trotting out something bigoted every 20 minutes. Beware of any tour selling personality, rather than place.

TRAIN TRAVEL

It's a gorgeous country to choo-choo through, but options are generally too slow and limited to be practical. The east coast is crying out for high speed rail, too.

CONSERVATION ETHOS

Australia's going to be significantly less good if you wreck the Great Barrier Reef with coal mines.

BEETROOT

Anyone who puts this as a default salad item on a burger should be tried at the Hague.

TEN THINGS YOU MISS ABOUT AUSTRALIA WHEN YOU LEAVE

UNOBSEQUIOUS RESTAURANT SERVICE

Casual, slightly inattentive service is so much better than being fawned over and continually being asked how you're enjoying your meal.

LACK OF TIPPING CULTURE

Australia has tipping culture exactly right. Leave a bit extra if you want, no worries if not.

TAXES INCLUDED

The price on the label is the price you pay in Oz, as taxes have already been included. Europe gets this, but North America and Asia tend not to – and it's incredibly annoying.

DOMESTIC FLIGHTS

As domestic airlines go, Qantas and Virgin Australia are global top tier. Flight prices per distance in Oz are pretty low, and there are always plenty of connections to choose from between big cities.

SPRAWLING BEER GARDENS

Elsewhere, a beer in the sun usually means fighting for a handful of seats in squashed back yard or cafe terrace. Oz provides the space to go with the weather, one positive legacy of Australia's historically backwards licensing laws.

PAN-ASIAN DINING

You can often find Malaysian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Indian and pretty much every other Asian cuisine within a few steps. Spots such as Spice Alley in Sydney's Chippendale or Darwin's Mindil Beach Market are exemplars.

CHEAP THAI FOOD

The king of easy Asian feasting, however, is cheap, decent Thai food. And Australia does this far better than anywhere else outside of south-east Asia.

DEREGULATED SUNDAY OPENING

Compared to places like Germany, being largely able to shop where you want, when you want, on a Sunday is an unappreciated novelty.

MONDAY MUSEUM OPENINGS

Most Aussie museums have kicked the maddening European hangover of closing on Mondays to the kerb.

CASUAL DRESS DINING

Being able to rock up to a reasonably fancy restaurant in shorts and a T-shirt, or a beach dress, is surprisingly liberating. And, in Australia, you don't generally get snotty looks for it.

FIVE THINGS AUSTRALIA DOES BETTER THAN ANYWHERE

BEACHES

Everyone finds their favourites, whether dainty coves on Sydney Harbour, legendary surf breaks at Margaret River in Western Australia and Bells Beach in Victoria, or photogenic white sand sprawlers such as Whitehaven in the Whitsundays. But, crucially, Australia has tens of thousands of staggering, dune-backed beaches, and the average quality is incomparably high.

WINE TOURISM

Australia's wine regions are largely free of European snootiness and American sampling charges. Friendly cellar doors, tasting tours which balance education and enjoyment, and a supporting cast of cheesemakers, chocolatiers and craft brewers have become signatures. The sampling often starts within an hour of the airport, too – the likes of the Swan Valley in Western Australia, or Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, are remarkably accessible for a short break.

MARSUPIALS

Australia can't offer Serengeti safari splendour, but it has photo opportunitiesin spades. Kangaroos hopping along golf courses, wombats snuffling around Tasmania's Maria Island and quokka selfies on Rottnest Island make for a cavalcade of "aww!" moments.

THE LIFE AQUATIC

It's not just about the incomparable Great Barrier Reef. There are splendid ocean encounters all around the coast – all proudly complying with stringent animal welfare regulations. Swimming with humpback whales from the Sunshine Coast? Dolphin cruises at Port Stephens? Shark cage diving off South Australia's Eyre Peninsula? They're all fine choices on a massive menu.

THE BIG EMPTY

Even in the rumpled, rugged American West, a small town will pop up every hour or so. The Australian outback goes to another level – driving across the Nullarbor or up the Stuart Highway, it's often two hours between roadhouses. The remoteness – and the feeling of being so small in a vast nothing – is oddly invigorating.

FIVE UNDERRATED AUSTRALIAN ASSETS

THE LIGHT

Strolling through Kings Park in Perth, with the silvery gumtrees standing tall and the Swan River unfurling below, shouldn't feel quite as magical as it does. But the extra ingredient is the blazing, blue sky. The quality and intensity of light is a treasure when compared to the low, grey skies of Europe.

THE AIR

Recent bushfires aside, Australian tourist boards know the quality of air is a major asset – it's a key selling point for those coming from smoggy Asian cities. And few Australians will ever regret working a few extra outdoor strolls into a domestic trip.

THE NATIONAL PARKS

It's not necessarily the quality – although big-hitters such as Kakadu and the Blue Mountains are obviously great. It's the sheer quantity – and almost all make for enjoyable bushwalking, camping and wildlife-spotting. More obscure ones – Oxley Wild Rivers, Eungella, Fitzgerald River, et al – are usually worth the nosy.

THE SIGNPOSTING

So many bushwalks – and even more mundane efforts like the Wynnum Mangrove Boardwalk in Brisbane – are pepped up by informative signs, explaining local heritage or how the ecosystem works. It's frequently enough to make the otherwise mediocre seem quite interesting.

THE APARTHOTELS

Australia might be a little behind the curve on hip design hotels, but it does spacious, functional and family-friendly amazingly well. Chains such as Mantra, Adina and Oaks are often just the ticket at a fair rate – especially when kitchens and washer-dryers are included.

AFTER THE FIRES: WHAT THE TRAVEL WORLD THINKS

PAT RIDDELL, EDITOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER (UK)

"Not many British travellers have a sense of the scale of the bushfires — and which parts of the country have been affected. Some kind of "open for business" campaign could clarify that most of the country is perfectly safe to visit. A resumption of the recent Kylie Minogue-fronted "Matesong" advert, modified of course, would help to restore the country's long-standing appeal in the UK." See nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel

MARK ORWOLL, TRAVEL WRITER AND FORMER TRAVEL + LEISURE US EDITOR

"Americans have a serious fondness for Australians and their country. The view now, though, is like wanting to go visit your favourite cousin after he's home from hospital, glad to have him home and healthy. But Americans will put Australia back on their bucket list, I'm sure of it."

BRITTA HENNING, AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND PRODUCT MANAGER FOR GERMAN TOUR OPERATOR ERLEBE FERNREISEN

"Many Germans are unaware fires occur regularly in Australia and that the vegetation needs them. We need to spread good stories and images about how nature bounces back and how people stick together. Guests also don't want to take part in "disaster tourism", so we have to convince them that the Australian spirit is different to what they expect, and that they can actually help by travelling." See erlebe-fernreisen.de

BRET CHARMAN, TOUR LEADER FOR UK-BASED TOUR OPERATOR, WILDLIFE WORLDWIDE

"For myself and our clients, the key thing is that we know every effort is being made to protect the remaining areas of undamaged bush. Much of Australia's wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth and it is critical that we protect that which remains." See wildlifeworldwide.com

LEE COBAJ, HONG KONG-BASED TRAVEL WRITER

"People in Hong Kong imagine that Australia is now nothing but a burnt out husk and all attractions will have been destroyed or closed. Letting people know how many fantastic things there still are to see and do would be a good start. Hongkongers love a bargain more than most, so I would target flight and hotel deals around the city's numerous public holidays."

BARRY NEILD, GLOBAL EDITOR, CNN TRAVEL

"Response to previous disasters at destinations elsewhere has taught us that some travellers want to show their support so long as they know they are going to be a help rather than a hindrance. Often, people want to combine their vacation with an activity that helps with recovery. As long as travellers are given a realistic picture of what to expect when they head to a destination bouncing back from adversity, they'll keep coming." See edition.cnn.com/travel

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