There's been a great deal of time and distance - social and otherwise - between now and when the citizens of Australia's two most populous states were last able to travel free of the devastating effects of fire, drought and pandemic.
After many months of mayhem and disruption, intrastate tourism in NSW and Victoria will officially resume on Monday, hopefully injecting a dramatic boost to the damaged tourism and hospitality industries.
Unsurprisingly, indications are that we can't wait to take off. The Tourism & Transport Forum commissioned consumer research showing that almost two thirds of Australians are planning a trip within their own state in the next six months with travel bans gradually being relaxed.
"This is great news for regional tourism which has been massively impacted by the double whammy of the summer bushfires in both NSW and Victoria and COVID-19," says forum chief executive Margy Osmond. "Of course it will take some time for real recovery but it does mark a significant milestone in the reopening of our industry."
A spokesperson for NRMA's Parks and Resorts says there has been an immediate and significant increase in bookings once the announcement was made to allow intrastate holidays. And the fact that fewer Australians will be allowed to travel overseas this year should significantly benefit the local tourism industry.
Critically, the NRMA has also seen a "three-fold" increase in bookings from the same period last year, with more people booking a domestic holiday and for a longer time than they normally would do so. With domestic air travel limited or non-existent, and other state and territory borders remaining controversially closed, these are overwhelmingly road trip-based holidays.
"There's growing optimism that domestic tourism and in particular the great Australian road trip will play an increasingly pivotal role in the rejuvenation of regional Australia," the NRMA said.
"After 12 horrific months of drought, bushfires and COVID-19, the tourism industry is starting to see a resurgence off the back of the NSW Government's decision to reopen the state on June 1. This rebound will only increase once other states follow suit."
To mark the resumption of travel following the pandemic shutdown, a panel of seven tourism experts and travel lovers has been asked to name their seven most inspiring wonders of tourism in NSW.
And some of the answers are surprising, with lesser-known marvels in our diverse backyard nominated.
Among the choices of celebrated author and prodigious traveller Thomas Keneally, whose latest book, The Dickens Boy, is set in NSW and Victoria, was the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Willandra Lakes region, north of Balranald in NSW's far west.
It's the home of Lake Mungo, "an august dry lake full of botanical wonders", as Keneally, describes it. It's where Professor Jim Bowler found Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, "the latter a man buried ritually 42,000 years ago".
"This lake bespeaks of the plentiful and settled life of Australian Aborigines on its shores from time immemorial to the end of the last Ice Age," says Kenneally. "These people lived amongst the megafauna. The place and its powerful atmospherics puts us whities and our little history into perspective."
At the other geographic extreme of the state, in fact far from the NSW coastline, is another World Heritage jewel - Lord Howe Island. This stunning drop in the ocean, 779 kilometres due east of Sydney, was chosen by Phillipa Harrison, managing director of Tourism Australia, as one of her seven wonders of NSW.
"When you land on Lord Howe, you feel like you have arrived in Paradise Lost'," Harrison says. "It's a special place that only allows 400 people at a time and it's a diver's and walker's mecca. If you're lucky, a day diving to Balls Pyramid is a bucket list experience."
Kris Ashton, deputy editor of the NRMA's Open Road magazine, is drawn to the wonders of the South Coast's Mill Bay Boardwalk where "fish, stingrays and sea lions frequent the water" alongside the timber boardwalk.
The spectacular, 350-metre timber boardwalk, which ends at Wagonga Head with views to Montague Island, also offers a unique perspective of the seaside mecca of Narooma.
Heather Ewart is host of the ABC's popular Back Roads documentary series which celebrates Australia's regional communities. She adores the NSW South Coast, which was just starting to recover from the bushfire crisis as the pandemic struck. She has holidayed here for decades.
"It has superb beaches and national park forests that are making a revival since the bushfire disasters earlier this year," she says. "So many little towns serving great food and wine. Give them a hand. They deserve it."
Although the relaxation of travel restrictions heralds a return to some semblance of normality, Osmond urges visitors to exercise caution when travelling to regional centres for holidays or day trips. There is still some understandable unease about the spread of COVID-19 and an influx of tourists.
"We know from our research that 70 per cent of regional communities want the visitors back but it is important to be thoughtful about towns that are still in recovery from the fires," she says.
"My advice would be to be good visitors particularly in relation to being COVID-19 safe. Ensure you take all the necessary precautions health wise before you leave, while you are there and when you get back."
Among her favourite spots are the small South Coast town of Tilba Tilba and the Blue Mountains.
Simon McGrath, chief operating officer for Accor Pacific hotels and resorts, nominates Crescent Head and the Macleay Valley Coast and says its point break is one of the longest rides in the country.
Nick Baker, chief executive CamperMate travel app, says the Central West is where he's headed to savour great food, great wine and history.
THE SEVEN WONDERS OF NSW
Phillipa Harrison, managing director, Tourism Australia
Highland Heritage Vineyard, Orange.
1. LENNOX HEAD The quieter cousin of Byron Bay. I worked here one summer when I was at university. An early morning swim in the healing waters of the tea tree-stained Lake Ainsworth does wonders for the body and soul.
2. LORD HOWE ISLAND A two-hour flight away from Sydney, when you land on Lord Howe, you feel like you've arrived in Paradise Lost. It's a very special place that only allows 400 people at a time and is a diver's and walker's mecca. If you're lucky, a day diving to Balls Pyramid is one for the bucket list.
3. BONDI TO MANLY This is 60 kilometres of walks, and the highlight is fish and chips at sunset on Balmoral Beach. There's no place like home and on my staycation 'to do' list is one of the many coastal walks in between.
4. NAROOMA If you're a fan of South Coast oysters, head to Narooma to enjoy them fresh from the boats. If you can, time it with the Narooma Oyster Festival.
5. THE ELVIS FESTIVAL AT PARKES – just because.
6. HAWKS NEST This sleepy town on the mid north coast with a stunning, deserted beach is where I spent many family holidays during my youth.
7. ORANGE A beautiful country town that has really hit its straps as a foodie destination, renowned for its fresh produce from wine to apples to truffles. A great destination in summer or winter and make sure you visit the Ferment Wine Bar to sample the latest wines from the region. For a more family friendly option, visit the insta-ready, crazy good Spilt Milk Gelato Bar.
Thomas Keneally, author
Smoky Cape Lighthouse near South West Rocks. Photo: Steven Siewert
1. SMOKY CAPE LIGHTHOUSE A massive cape surrounded by fern and forest, named Smoky Cape by James Cook. You can walk there from South West Rocks on tracks originally made by the Dunghutti people. A great lighthouse pitched vertiginously above an enormous sea with Fish Rock, a wonderful diving sight, just off-shore and some 18 or more kilometres of forested beach sweeping away to Hat Head that yell, "Walk me!" to the visitor.
2. NORTH HEAD, MANLY A magnificent sandstone block of headland heath provided with steel tracks and bush roads offering dazzling down-Harbour views and panoramas of the sea. Echidnas live here and are not infrequently seen farming the soil in their impressive way. Flannel flowers and butch banksias of impressive size charm you on the way. There is a beautiful if poignant quarantine cemetery containing victims of the Spanish influenza and the 1900s bubonic plague.
3. MOSMAN TO MANLY WALK Eight kilometres by tracks that keep to sandstone ledges and bushy headlands nearly all of the way, with Aboriginal pecking on its rock ledges. It's my nomination for the finest walk in the state, taking in many beaches and ending at Manly. Do I have a Manly obsession? Yes. But this unparalleled walk justifies it.
4. THE COOMA PLAINS High glacial country where the alps turn into grasslands dotted with clumps of great granite boulders left from the last glacier melt when all this country was covered with ice. It is an unearthly space with a view of the alps beyond, atmospheric in an almost pre-human way. I love the granite or gneiss rocks in their clumps and solitariness statements against the raw sky. Gives me a proper turn, it does.
5. WILLANDRA LAKES WORLD HERITAGE AREA North of Balranald NSW. In the lunette of Lake Mungo, an august dry lake full of botanical wonders, Professor Jim Bowler found Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, the later a man buried ritually 42,000 years ago. This lake bespeaks the plentiful and settled life of Australian Aborigines on its shores from time immemorial to the end of the last Ice Age. These people lived amongst the megafauna. The place and its powerful atmospherics puts us whities and our little history into perspective.
6. THE COUNTRY NORTH-WEST OF WILCANNIA I got interested in it because Charles Dickens's young son was a gentleman drover here in the late 1860s. It is country of rock outcrops and gentle undulations, with saltbush, blue bush and mulga very much in evidence, crossed by streams flowing from the Paroo, which are lovely if they have water in them or not, because the big desert gums cluster there anyway. A land of huge vistas and charming semi-arid vegetation on the way to the great seasonal Peri or Peery Lake, with its artesian mound springs. This is Paakantji country.
7. THE PORCUPINE, NEAR PERISHER This dome-shaped height can be accessed from Perisher and Thredbo. It is a forgiving ascent by cross-country skis or snow-shoe in winter, which is the better time to do it, since you have the experience of seeing snow gums in profusion up again, showing their red-oxide flanks amidst the snow, a purely Australian sight. From the Porcupine Rocks to the side of the mountain there is a view, it seems, over most of NSW.
Simon McGrath, chief operating officer, Accor Pacific hotels and resorts
Bronte Baths. Photo: Kate Geraghty
1. ROCK POOLS OF SYDNEY From Bronte Baths to Fairy Bower Pool in Manly, down to the Mermaid Pools on the Bargo River, NSW is blessed with some of the most magnificent ocean baths and rock pools in the word.
2. HYAMS BEACH, JERVIS BAY Hyams Beach is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the whitest sand in the world, and the area is simply stunning. To see it is to believe it. There is a gorgeous little local café just off the beach called Hyams Beach Store and Café, well worth a visit for brunch or dinner.
3. SUBLIME POINT, LEURA, BLUE MOUNTAINS This offers the most breathtaking views of the Jamison Valley. From Sublime Point you can see the Cliff of Kings, the Three Sisters and the sleeping giant of Mount Solitary. The Blue Mountains are a national treasure worth visiting time and time again.
4. HUNTER VALLEY The semillon and shiraz wines of the Hunter Valley are world famous for a reason. What more can I say? I often visit the Hunter for a three-day break.
5. WATEGOS BEACH, BYRON BAY Possibly one of my favourite beaches in Australia. Peaceful and sheltered, it is a fantastic place to spend the day with a picnic.
6. CRESCENT HEAD, MACLEAY VALLEY COAST A beautiful spot to recharge. It is no wonder Crescent Head is popular with surfers, the point break here is known for being one of longest rides in Australia.
7. MUDGEE The character and old-world charm of Mudgee places it firmly onto my seven wonders of NSW list. Mudgee has great restaurants and is surrounded by national park, wineries and wilderness.
Kris Ashton, deputy editor, NRMA's Open Road magazine
Mill Bay Boardwalk, Narooma.
1. MUNGO NATIONAL PARK At sunset the rock formations in this arid region change colours and perfect silence prevails as the first evening star appears in the sky.
2. SEAL ROCKS This small town has a natural vantage point that overlooks the scimitar-shaped Boat Beach which is blessed with stunning turquoise waters.
3. CONFLUENCE OF MURRAY AND DARLING RIVERS The town of Wentworth in south-western NSW plays host to this astonishing phenomenon, where the Murray's bottle green kisses the Darling's muddy brown waters.
4. SAWN ROCKS Situated on the fringe of Mount Kaputar National Park near Narrabri, this remarkably geometric rock formation seems to appear from nowhere amid the surrounding bush.
5. MOUNT PANORAMA Bathurst's famous mountain has become so synonymous with motorsport that it's easy to forget why it got its name – its summit offers a spectacular vista of the Bathurst plains.
6. NAROOMA BOARDWALK Fish, stingrays and sea lions frequent the water beside this timber walkway, which offers a unique perspective on Narooma and ends at Wagonga Head with views over to Montague Island.
7. YARRANGOBILLY CAVES Forget Jenolan – this cave system, just north of Kosciuszko National Park, has fewer tourists and such concentrations of colours and formations that it almost feels man-made.
Heather Ewart, presenter, ABC-TV Back Roads series
Ebor Falls, Ebor (between Armidale and Dorrigo)
1. THE WATERFALL WAY linking Coffs Harbour and Armidale. It's aptly named and one of the most scenic stretches of road in Australia. It winds through beautiful rainforests, river valleys and little tabletop hill towns like Dorrigo and Ebor that boast stunning waterfalls we've featured on Back Roads.
2. THE GORGE AT CLARENCE RIVER a one and a half hour drive north- west of Grafton. It's not easy to get to but well worth the effort to check out this pristine, rugged gorge, its waterfalls and rapids. It can be dangerous so make sure, as I did, you're in a boat with someone who knows what they're doing.
3. THE FLAT SALTBUSH PLAINS OF THE RIVERINA from Hay on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, to Hillston further north. Pioneering sheep country, immortalised by Banjo Patterson in his poem Hay, Hell and Booligal – one of my favourites. Renowned for its merino wool and agriculture, Hay also gained recent fame in 2018 for introducing a colourful annual mardi gras, "Rainbow on the Plains' down the main street.
4. THE SOUTH COAST all the way from Kiama to Eden. I've holidayed in this region for decades. It has superb beaches and national park forests, making a revival since the bushfire disasters earlier this year. So many little towns serving great food and wine. Give them a hand. They deserve it
5. CHARLOTTE PASS It's the oldest and highest ski resort in Australia. Even if you can't ski [ like me], the magnificent views in summer or winter and Kosciuszko Chalet built in the 1930s shouldn't be missed.
6. BARRY WAY a hidden gem, best known to locals and skiers. It's a partly unsealed Alpine road, starting near Buchan in Victoria and ending up at the NSW resort town of Jindabyne. It follows the Snowy River and the views across the valleys are truly spectacular. Both states have a half share in the glory.
7. THE OPAL MINING TOWN OF WHITE CLIFFS a three-hour drive from Broken Hill where most people live underground. It's full of memorable characters from around Australia and the world, determined to get lucky.
Margy Osmond, chief executive, Tourism & Transport Forum
The Elvis festival in Parkes. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
1. KIAMA it's such a great little cosmopolitan jewel, it has great restaurants, great shopping and its very pretty. It also has good transport links and is a lovely train trip from Sydney.
2. THE BLUE MOUNTAINS is known for its lovely bush walks and natural scenery and the area's rhododendrons are so beautiful when they are in bloom.
3. EDEN on the far South Coast is incredibly picturesque, has a beautiful port and is a bushfire town fighting its way back. The Captain Sponge Oyster tours are also a highlight.
4. PARKES for the satellite dish and the Elvis festival
5. BANGALOW for its hillside setting and great markets while still being close to all the action in Ballina and Byron Bay
6. SYDNEY in particular Elizabeth Bay where there's great shopping, incredible food and history on tap. It's also close to the CBD and has beautiful green parks for the dog lovers among you.
7. KANGAROO VALLEY for its scenic beauty.
Nick Baker, chief executive, CamperMate, travel mobile app
The 'Walls of China' at Lake Mungo in outback New South Wales, Australia. Photo: iStock
1. MUDGEE AND RYLSTONE For food and wine of course but I also love the wide streets and nicely kept heritage buildings. Rylstone has a surprisingly great dumpling house. For walks, Dunns Swamp is beautiful for wildlife. Some locals told us about it and it was a great discovery.
2. THREDBO AND CRACKENBACK We love it in the winter for skiing and sitting round the firepit but in summer it's a great adventure destination for bike riding, hiking and fishing, canoeing and also floating down the Thredbo River in a helmet and wetsuit on a li-lo.
3. KINGSCLIFF, NORTHERN RVERS This is a terrific family holiday location and we love to get up there when it's cold down south. The beaches are stunning, the town has everything you'd need and the best part is the long coastal cycle track which weaves from the caravan park right on the beach, past the wonderful Salt hotel complex (where we have stayed often, in all different levels of accommodation) and the many new houses that offer holiday rentals. We always go to Osteria at Casuarina for breakfast, lunch and dinner - not all on the same day but always more than once in a trip.
4. KANGAROO VALLEY The landscape is just really pretty. It's a great drive and the town is nice to explore. But really it's getting out in the fresh air, whether it's kayaking or walking or horseriding.
5. NAMBUCCA HEADS We love this old-style holiday town on the Mid North Coast. It's a good stop on the coastal drive up or down and feels like you've found a little terrific piece of the past. There's a great caravan park up on the point with clean, comfy cabins and an ideal whale viewing point.
6. TILBA This town on the South Coast is like a food bowl with nice countryside and people and opportunities to explore all different kinds of produce straight from the farmers. Plus, we loved watching River Cottage.
7. MUNGO NATIONAL PARK We haven't been to this extraordinary place but it's on our hit list for a long drive and an insight into humanity's past and the long history of Indigenous habitation.