It's not as if there's a bad time to visit Australia, not as if you really need to wait for an opportune moment to explore your own backyard. This country is one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth, with visitor numbers from overseas now totalling 8.5 million per year (roughly the same as the number of overseas trips taken by Australians each year).
We're a place foreign tourists pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of kilometres for the privilege of experiencing – the fact we get to do it at our leisure is an amazing thing. And, what with world events, there's no denying that now is also a particularly good time to be travelling in our homeland to discover the home-grown alternatives we have to some of the most famous tourist attractions across the globe.
After all, regardless of what you would hope to find on an overseas adventure, there are places and attractions in Australia that can offer something similar. Maybe better. Whether it's cultural tourism or adventure, travel for food or travel for relaxation – Australia has you covered.
Why go any further than your own backyard?
INSTEAD OF… Provence, France
Provence, France Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… The Barossa, South Australia
WHY IT'S GREAT France might be the centre of the wine-making world, but in terms of tourism experience, Australia has plenty to offer lovers of a good drop, with regions that can rival the likes of Bordeaux and Provence. Perhaps our best-established wine-making area is the Barossa Valley in South Australia, where the shiraz is world-class, the cellar doors friendly and welcoming, the food excellent, and the scenery beautiful.
MUST DO Although there are plenty of great wine and food-related experiences in the Barossa, from a wine-tasting masterclass at Artisans of Barossa to learning to blend your own wine at Penfolds, but perhaps the best is the Prestige Experience at St Hugo – which includes a helicopter flight over the vineyard and an eight-course lunch – bookable through Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia.
INSTEAD OF… Colorado, US
Maroon Lake, Aspen, Colorado Photo: Shutterstock
WHY IT'S GREAT Colorado is one of the world's great destinations for outdoor adventurers; however, if you're keen to stay a little closer to home, Tasmania has got you covered. This is a small island that's big on adventure, with activities that will take you from the mountains to the rivers, along beaches and high into the air.
Mt Wellington, Tasmania
MUST DO It's a case of choose your own adventure in Tasmania. Keen on whitewater-rafting? Head out on a multi-day paddle through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Enjoy mountain-biking? Tackle the Blue Derby Mountain Bike Trail in the forest of the island's north-east. Got a head for heights? Abseil off the top of the 140-metre-high Gordon Dam.
INSTEAD OF… Utah, US
Monument Valley, Utah Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Finders Ranges, South Australia
WHY IT'S GREAT Utah is well known for its stunning desert landscapes, particularly its "mesas", or towers of rock that emerge from the red earth. Australia's closest equivalent is surely Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountains in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. Much like Utah, this is country seemingly purpose built for driving and camping, a place to de-stress and take in the splendour of outback Australia.
MUST DO There are two ways to see Wilpena Pound: on foot, with trails that range from one-hour round-trips to full-day adventures; or from the air, with a scenic flight that will take in not just the Wilpena Pound itself, but also Lake Torrens and St Mary Peak.
INSTEAD OF… Bali, Indonesia
Bali, Indonesia Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Lord Howe Island, NSW
WHY IT'S GREAT If you were chasing the true Bali experience in Australia you could head to Cairns to party with backpackers, or to Byron Bay for yoga and spirituality. If you're keen on a different island experience, however – one that's a world apart from Bali, though equally great – book your flights to Lord Howe Island. This Pacific paradise is one of Australia's most underrated destinations, with heritage-listed natural beauty both on land and under the sea. The pace here is relaxed, the locals are friendly, and there's no shortage of things to do.
Lord Howe Island
MUST DO Lord Howe is a destination best explored on foot, and the classic hike is up the 875-metre Mount Gower. Alternatively, take a boat out to Ball's Pyramid, a volcano sticking out of the ocean about 20 kilometres south-east of Lord Howe. The scuba-diving is incredible.
INSTEAD OF… The Serengeti, Tanzania and Kenya
The Serengeti Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
WHY IT'S GREAT There's no Big Five in Kakadu, nothing to rival the sight of lions or leopards or elephants in the wild. However, those large mammals are not the sole reason people go to visit the Serengeti in Tanzania – there's culture to discover there, as well as spectacular scenery, and that's where Kakadu also shines. This is a part of Australia where you'll see amazing natural beauty, particularly if you're a bird lover, while also having the chance to discover local Aboriginal culture.
Twin Falls, Northern Territory
MUST DO To combine both the natural and the cultural in Kakadu, head out on a tour with Animal Tracks Safaris. On this day-long outing you'll learn all about bush tucker from a local Aboriginal elder, before cooking up a feast and eating alfresco surrounded by the beautiful Australian bush.
INSTEAD OF… Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Uluru, Northern Territory
WHY IT'S GREAT Unlike many countries, including Peru, much of Australia's Indigenous history and culture is intangible – it's not monuments and cathedrals that we find here, but rather stories and knowledge. The best place to appreciate those stories, and to share in some of them, is Uluru, our own spectacular and natural answer to somewhere like Machu Picchu. Uluru is this nation's spiritual base and a must-visit for anyone who calls Australia home.
Uluru Photo: Mitchell Cox
MUST DO To properly understand the Aboriginal culture associated with this sacred area, take an interpretive walking tour of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta with the local Anangu – the traditional owners of the site – via Uluru Aboriginal Tours.
INSTEAD OF… The Maldives
Maldives Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… The Cocos Keeling Islands
WHY IT'S GREAT Australia has its own Indian Ocean paradise, though considering it's some 2750 kilometres off the West Australian coastline, it may be difficult to believe it really is ours. The Cocos Keelings, a group of 27 palm-fringed coral islands, are a world apart, a rustic tourist destination that may not boast the over-water bungalows and luxury trappings of the Maldives, but does have an air of exoticism and untouched beauty unrivalled by anywhere in the world.
Cocos Keeling atoll Photo: Shutterstock
MUST DO The activities on offer here range from the sedate to the adrenalin-fuelled. Go bird-watching to see terns, boobies, sandpipers and rails; go fishing for bonefish or mahi-mahi; snorkel over the extensive reef; or go surfing on empty breaks.
INSTEAD OF… Namibia
CONSIDER… The Kimberley, Western Australia
WHY IT'S GREAT There are some truly spectacular landscapes in Namibia, barren stretches of land riven with ancient riverbeds and rock formations carved out over millennia. Surely if anywhere was going to rival that natural beauty, those eons-old works of art, it would be the Kimberley. This is wild country up in Australia's north-west, a place of rugged mountains, deep, spectacular gorges, waterfalls, rivers and plains. If you're looking to get away from it all but still surround yourself with earth's splendour, you could do little better.
Cable Beach, Broome
MUST DO Spend a few nights at Mornington Wilderness Camp, run by a non-profit company, on the banks of the Fitzroy River. All proceeds from your stay will be dedicated to the preservation of wildlife in the Kimberley.
INSTEAD OF… Paris
CONSIDER… Hobart, Tasmania
WHY IT'S GREAT For art lovers, Paris' galleries – the likes of the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre – are mecca; they're sites of pilgrimage; they're bucket-list no-brainers. They're also, however, a long way away, which makes a trip to the now world-renowned Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart an attractive alternative. David Walsh's passion project has become one of Australia's most popular tourist attractions, the full package of art and experience, a gallery featuring works that are not always lovable, but are certainly memorable.
MUST DO The simplest experience of visiting MONA – taking the dedicated ferry from Hobart and wandering the gallery – is a great one. However, you can extend the enjoyment by visiting the cellar door at Moorilla, the on-site winery, eating dinner at The Source restaurant, or spending the night at the luxurious Mona Pavilions.
INSTEAD OF… Tonga
CONSIDER… Exmouth, Western Australia
WHY IT'S GREAT Though there are plenty of reasons to visit Tonga, one of the most popular is the chance to swim with whales, getting up close and personal with humpbacks in the warm Pacific. What could rival that? How about swimming with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth in WA. Each year from March to August, the world's biggest fish arrive, providing swimmers with a truly memorable experience.
MUST DO Several companies offer whale shark tours during the season, day trips from Exmouth that include reef snorkelling, as well as a swim with as many whale sharks as the spotter planes can find.
INSTEAD OF… Tokyo
Tokyo, Japan Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
CONSIDER… Melbourne, Victoria
WHY IT'S GREAT Lovers of good food would no doubt fantasise about a trip to Tokyo, given the incredible number of restaurants and the diversity of food on offer in the Japanese capital. However, there's a small slice of Tokyo right here in Australia, and it's called Minamishima. This high-end sushi restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond is dishing up the best "omakase", or degustation menu, this side of the Tsukiji Fish Market. Book early.
Tipo 00, Melbourne
MUST DO There's more to the Melbourne dining scene, of course, than Minamishima. For 50 Best-rated cuisine, try Attica. For Melbourne classics, check out Flower Drum or France Soir. For new favourites, see Kisume for Japanese or Lune for croissants. The sheer volume of high-quality eating available in Melbourne rivals many of the world's gastronomic greats.
INSTEAD OF… The Red Sea
Red Sea, Egypt Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Lady Elliot Island, Queensland
WHY IT'S GREAT Although the Red Sea is known as having some of the best scuba diving in the world, and our own Great Barrier Reef's glory is sadly fading in some places, there are still some amazing underwater experiences to be had off Australia's east coast. One of the best is Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay east of Hervey Bay, a small island with a lot to offer those with a love of marine life, seabirds and turtles.
Lady Elliot Island
MUST DO Arrive at Lady Elliot in winter and you'll have the most unforgettable experience: diving with manta rays, these A380s of the ocean, beautiful beasts with wingspans up to seven metres. Manta rays congregate around Lady Elliot in large numbers in winter, providing divers with the chance to float alongside these gentle giants.
INSTEAD OF… Biarritz, France
Biarritz, France Photo: Shutterstock
CONSIDER… Margaret River, WA
WHY IT'S GREAT So here's what you're looking for: a combination of great lifestyle and a beachy community; world-class surf breaks and award-winning wine; excellent food and a laidback vibe. You could fly all the way to France to visit coastal Biarritz. Or you could head over to Margaret River in Western Australia. It might lack the French flavour, but everything else is on point.
Voyager Estate, Margaret River
MUST DO If you're a gun surfer, paddle out at North Point, Yallingup, or Surfers Point and catch a few waves. If you prefer to watch, grab lunch at scenic White Elephant Cafe in Gnarabup. Wine lovers, meanwhile, should head for a tasting at Leeuwin Estate or Voyager Estate, before wining and dining at Vasse Felix.
See also: Twenty reasons to love Margaret River
FIVE PLACES WE WILL NEVER QUITE MATCH
Never mind Australia: there's nowhere in the world that can compare to Rome. The sheer number of historical buildings and monuments; the worldwide importance of events that took place here; the living culture of good food and wine; the modern-day seat of Catholicism – all of these factors come together to form a stunning destination.
Australia doesn't have mountains. We have "mountains". When your highest peak barely nudges 2000 metres, you have to put the word in inverted commas, particularly when you consider the splendour of the Himalayas, where there are more than 50 peaks soaring above 7200 metres. There's no way Australia can ever hope to compete with that mountain range.
Australia is beginning to develop a street food scene, slowly but surely. However, we're unlikely to ever make it into the same leagues as the chaotic, affordable and absolutely delicious street eats culture of Bangkok. A night spent feasting from the Chinatown street vendors here is a night well spent indeed.
In a similar way to Rome, there isn't a tourist site in the world that can compare with the historical wonders that you'll just stumble upon in Luxor. This is the home of the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Tombs of the Nobles. There's more than 5000 years of history here just waiting to be discovered.
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
There's an energy to La Paz that you could never recreate in Australia. In fact you wouldn't want to – much of La Paz's charm comes from its chaos, from the maddening traffic, from the bustle of the pavements, from the higgledy-piggledy houses that cling to the steep slopes of this valley high in the Andes.
FIVE MORE AUSTRALIAN DESTINATIONS SET TO GIVE THE WORLD A NUDGE
ABROLHOS ISLANDS, WA
Many of Western Australia's natural wonders have been protected from the masses by their pure isolation: for example, the Abrolhos Islands, a chain of 122 stunning specks of land in the Indian Ocean that are 60 kilometres west of Geraldton, and accessible only by scenic flight or live-aboard boat cruise. The unique marine environment here, however, is worth the effort to explore.
TIWI ISLANDS, NT
Bathurst Island and Melville Island are home to the Tiwi Aboriginal people, and provide an amazing cultural experience for those prepared to travel even further north than the Top End. The highlight of the Tiwi calendar is Grand Final day, when the islands' footy champions clash, and the entire population comes out to watch. The Tiwi Art Sale takes place at the same time.
This is perhaps Australia's most exciting new wine region, an area that's punching well above its weight in terms of quality drops. While the tourism experience is still in its infancy right now, and nowhere near the likes of the Barossa or Yarra Valley, expect things to change rapidly in the coming years.
Another beautiful destination protected by isolation, Esperance, on Australia's south-west coast, is a small town with a lot to offer, from pristine white beaches to national parks to marine parks. There are also the 105 islands that make up the Recherche Archipelago – home to fur seals and penguins – to check out.
SYDNEY'S WATERHOLES, NSW
Plenty of Sydney's residents don't even realise the bounty that's on their doorstep, the wild, isolated waterholes that are close to the city and perfectly safe for swimming. We're talking the likes of South West Arm Pool and Deer Pool in Royal National Park, the Ivor Rowe Rockpool in South Coogee, and the Minerva Pool in Dharawal National Park.
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