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Sue Williams, a regular Traveller contributor, has spent many years visiting Australia's towns, from busy, buzzy big ones to the tiniest town of Cook in the middle of the Nullarbor: population three. She wants to encourage everyone to explore our own town treasures with as much gusto as we tour other countries.
What makes the perfect Australian town for a holiday?
Is it somewhere where there's loads to do ... or nothing? Should it be small, intimate and friendly with eccentric characters and sights, or pretty, quiet and relaxing? A place laden with history, great architecture and art – or with parks, pools and excellent ice-cream?
Traveller assembled a panel of six well-known Australians who know the country intimately from years spent touring its towns, and asked them for their choices of the nation's best.
Their answers were sometimes surprising, but always immensely revealing of the visitable towns we have on our doorstep.
• Australian icon John "True Blue' Williamson, who's just released his 50th album and his autobiography, Hey True Blue draws his song-writing inspiration from travelling around the country.
• Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Jan Sardi travels Australia widely looking for the perfect backdrops for his films, like Shine, Love's Brother, Mao's Last Dancer, and his current project, The Secret River.
• Record-breaking around-the-world yachtswoman Kay Cottee knows most of Australia's coastal towns intimately and scoured them again when she wanted to find the best to become her permanent home.
• Artist Garry McEwan was born in the bush and has lived, and exhibited, all over Australia with his artworks featuring in galleries and private collections around the world.
• Dancing with the Stars TV personality, singer and dancer Todd McKenney's happiest times are when he's touring country Australia, with plans to stage Anything Goes and Grease regionally in the near future.
• Golden Guitar and Mo Award-winning country singer-songwriter Felicity Urquhart, the host of ABC radio's country music show Saturday Night Country and on the TV show Sydney Weekender, has performed around Australia.
THE PERFECT CULTURAL TOWN
Arts, crafts, home-farmed alpaca clothing, galleries, an African artefacts boutique, festivals, antique stores, top-notch restaurants, walking and bicycle trails, talks, plays ... Beechworth in north-east Victoria is a town where the only thing that seems to stand still is its history.
With a collection of beautifully-preserved, honeyed granite heritage sites from the goldrush days of the mid-1850s, as well as plenty of reminders of one of its best-known figures – Ned Kelly – it's today becoming even better known for its lively cultural scene.
"You sometimes think about country towns as a bit red-neck or rough around the edges, but Beechworth is nothing like that at all," says Garry McEwan, who's just opened his Bang store there. "It's a very sophisticated town where you can get a decent latte, great food from some wonderful world-class restaurants, fabulous wine from the wineries and there's also so much to see and do.
"For me, it's the perfect town because it has a wonderful mix of locals and visitors so it's got a great mix of businesses, stunning architecture and, while it's very picture postcard-like, there's so much going on all the time."
The annual Ned Kelly Weekend sees "bushrangers" hold up the centre of town, while there are regular historic walking tours and courthouse re-enactments of Kelly's committal hearing. Nearby, at Greta, is the remains of his family homestead and his unmarked grave. His last words, "Such is life", are even parodied on the T-shirts of the Beechworth Bridge Road Brewery: "Such is beer".
HOW TO GET THERE: Drive the three hours from Melbourne, or from Sydney it's a seven-hour drive. Alternatively, there's the eight-hour train trip to Wangaratta, then the 30-minute bus to Beechworth, or a flight to Albury via Qantas, Rex or Virgin and then the half-hour bus or car hire.
WHERE TO STAY: Finches of Beechworth, Finch Street has six suites furnished with antiques, artworks and chandeliers, in established country gardens. A suite for two costs from $265 a night. Phone (03) 5728 2655, see finchesofbeechworth.com.au
MUST-DO: Browse the art galleries and antique stores on the picturesque main street, visit the courthouse, eat a Ned Kelly pie (steak, bacon, egg and cheese) from the bakery, order an ironbark honey and macadamia ice-cream at the Beechworth Honey Experience, cycle on tracks through the mountain bike park.
THE PERFECT OUTBACK TOWN
Lightning Ridge, NSW
The remote opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge in north-western NSW has absolutely everything you'd ever want from the genuine outback, says John Williamson.
"It attracts the most eccentric sort of people, the dreamers and the battlers, which is very much a part of the Australian bush," he says. "Then, because they're not allowed to put permanent dwellings on mining claims, they've built an enormous array of humpies from beer bottles, old kerosene tins ... whatever they can lay their hands on.
"Going out there is like travelling back into the 19th century; a glimpse of what a town would have been back in those days. I absolutely love visiting!"
Lightning Ridge is a town of maybe around 7000 people, but no one really knows. As a magnet for fortune-seekers wanting to escape the rest of the world, it's little surprise that so many shy away from official forms. On approach, a sign reads: "Lightning Ridge, population ?"
The surrounding areas are pitted with holes and dotted with mullock heaps of fossicked limestone, testament to miners' sweat, blood and tears over the years – and the town's claim to the world's largest stores of rare black opal.
Williamson was so inspired by the sight, he even wrote a song about it, At Lightning Ridge – "He's gouging for the opal like a wombat or a mole, way out there at Lightning Ridge ..."
HOW TO GET THERE: Drive the nine hours from Sydney, or the 14 hours from Melbourne via the goldfields and Echuca. Alternatively, fly to Dubbo with Qantas or Rex, or catch the train to Dubbo from Sydney, and then rent a car for the easy four-hour drive.
WHERE TO STAY: Black Opal Motel, Morilla Street costs $85 a night for a twin room. Phone (02) 6829 0518.
MUST-DO: take an underground mine tour, try fossicking, check out the opal in the many stores, soak in the artesian bore baths, admire the house made of bottles and a castle hand-built by an obsessed local.
THE PERFECT SPA TOWN
Originally, Jan Sardi planned to set his 2004 movie Love's Brother about Italians living in 1950s Australia in Melbourne's Carlton until he remembered the town of his youth, Daylesford, in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, 120 kilometres north of the city.
"I used to go there as a five-year-old kid with my grandparents," he says. "Italians were very much into mineral water and we used to take a day trip there to fill bottles with the water. When I went back up there, I fell in love with it all over again.
"It has such a wonderful European feeling. It's so beautiful, it's full of history with the old gold rush and then the buildings like the pasta factory with all its frescoes, and it's the perfect place to go and relax and kick back."
Daylesford is one of only a handful of spa towns in Australia, and is set in beautiful woodland greenery. It's known for its 72 natural mineral springs, as well as more than 30 spas and health retreats.
But for a break from blissing out, there are also beautiful walks through the Wombat Forest – they'll even lend you a hand-held GPS to make sure you don't get lost – and lots of bike trails.
The stunning Lake Daylesford is also beautiful to walk around, take a paddleboat on, or simply gaze at, with a picnic lunch. Squint, and on a nice day, it could almost be Lake Como.
HOW TO GET THERE: Drive the 70 minutes from Melbourne.
WHERE TO STAY: Samadhi Spa & Wellness Retreat, Bridport Street. A two-night rejuvenation package with a three-hour spa therapy, guided meditation, dinners and breakfasts, starts at $1550 a person. Phone (03) 5348 7926, see samadhiretreat.com.au.
MUST-DO: Visit the 1895 Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa, sniff the air at the local lavender farm Lavendula, take a wine tour and eat pasta at Lucini's in the original pasta factory, served by the fifth generation family member.
THE PERFECT COASTAL TOWN
In northern NSW, almost half-way between Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour, Yamba is a sleepy town on the mouth of the Clarence River, with pristine beaches, national parks to both the north and south and bustling with great cafes and restaurants.
It's also the spot Kay Cottee chose to settle in after examining the coastal possibilities. "It's originally a fishing village, although the fleet's getting smaller all the time," she says. "But it's gorgeous. There are so many beaches, including one of the country's best surf beaches, Angourie, so it doesn't matter which way the wind blows, you can always find a sheltered place on the sand.
"There's also about 300 navigable miles [480 kilometres] of river and about 100 islands in the river delta. Then we have the national parks. It's a really peaceful haven."
Yamba has no fewer than 11 beaches: some flat and protected; others with surf; some with rockpools and fishing spots and great snorkelling; and others with lots of facilities, like cafes, a saltwater pool, places to change and regular patrols. Locals say it's easily as beautiful as Byron but happily a lot less well-known, less developed, and a great deal quieter.
It also wears the crown of having the best climate in the world – along with San Diego, California and Bunbury in WA – according to a study by the CSIRO and Stanford University.
HOW TO GET THERE: It takes eight hours to drive from Sydney, or Qantas and Virgin both fly to Coffs Harbour, and Rex, Jetstar and Virgin all fly to Ballina, both about 90 minutes from Yamba.
WHERE TO STAY: The Blue Dolphin Holiday Resort, Yamba Road. A family-friendly cabin starts at $115 a night for a family of four. Phone (02) 6646 2194, see bluedolphin.com.au.
MUST-DO: Take a scenic river cruise and watch the dolphins play, walk in the Yuraygir or the Bundjalung national parks, take a surf lesson at the Yamba-Angourie Surf School, fish, whale-watch in season, and bird-watch all year round.
THE PERFECT HERITAGE TOWN
In the northern part of the New England Tablelands of New South Wales, Tenterfield is at the centre of one of Australia's most significant historical areas. Considered by many the birthplace of the nation – where Sir Henry Parkes delivered his famous Federation Speech in 1889 – it has a number of important preserved buildings, as well as famous former residents.
One was Peter Allen, whose life in the town with his saddler grandfather, was immortalised in the iconic Australian song Tenterfield Saddler. "It's always felt a very important place to me," says Todd McKenney, who played Allen in the original The Boy From Oz musical.
"That's a song that I've always found incredibly moving. As well as being a song about Peter's father, who shot himself, it's also a song about the timelessness of life in the Australian bush, and the toughness. It's become, in itself, an important part of our history."
The blue-granite National Trust-listed saddlery building was in its time a meeting place for people like poet Banjo Paterson who married his sweetheart in town and solicitor Major J.F. Thomas of Breaker Morant fame, played by Jack Thompson in the 1980 movie. It was also the hiding place of famed bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.
Other historic buildings in the town date from the goldrush and the town's surrounded by national parks with spectacular bushland and other pretty period villages. And, says McKenney, everyone is incredibly friendly. Time is a traveller, Tenterfield saddler, Turn your head ...
HOW TO GET THERE: Drive the 7½ hours from Sydney or the 17 from Melbourne. Or take the eight-hour train from Sydney to Armidale, or fly to Armidale with Qantas or Rex, with a connecting bus or rental car for the 2½-hour drive to Tenterfield.
WHERE TO STAY: Annie's Folly, Duncan Street, is a beautiful 1908 three-bedroom cottage, from $160 a night for two including breakfast, and with extra adults $40 a person a night, and children $30. Phone (02) 6736 2542, see anniesfolly.com.au.
MUST-DO: Wander the streets to absorb the history with more than 100 heritage-listed buildings, making sure to drop into the Tenterfield Saddlery and the 1886 railway station, drive to see the largest exposed rock in the southern hemisphere Bald Rock, explore the granite countryside on Tourist Drive 9, recite some Banjo Paterson while standing on the bushland he loved
THE PERFECT COUNTRY TOWN
Tamworth, in the New England region of New South Wales midway between Sydney and Brisbane, is best known for its Tamworth Country Music Festival held in January each year, the second biggest country music festival in the world.
But quite apart from its country music, Felicity Urquhart says her hometown has many other other attractions. "Everything you could possibly need to enjoy a holiday is at your fingertips there," she says. "There are obviously great music venues, not just country, as with the conservatorium there are amazing talents coming out, so there are always acts to see of any kind.
"Then if you're a foodie, the area boasts some stellar restaurants, using top-quality local produce and there's sport, great shops and very friendly people. Oh, and did I mention: hardly any traffic lights? The weather is cool in winter and warm in summer too – just the way it's supposed to be."
Tamworth also has plenty of nature to explore, like an award-winning marsupial park where visitors can walk with the wildlife, the rugged Nowendoc National Park and the fairytale-like Mummel Forest.
Yet the town, the first place in Australia to have street lights in 1888 – Urquhart's latest release is City Of Light with its title track about Tamworth – is the centre of a packed program of festivals, celebrating everything from motorbikes to food, the gold rush to an annual tractor muster.
HOW TO GET THERE: Drive the five hours from Sydney or from Melbourne via Sydney, or fly Qantas.
WHERE TO STAY: Sundowner Sundance Park Motel, corner New England Highway and Burgmanns Lane; how could you go past that guitar-shaped pool? Rooms from $120 a night for a family of four. Phone (02) 6765 7922, see sundancepark.com.au.
MUST-DO: Visit the Walk A Country Mile Museum, take a selfie with the giant golden guitar at the visitors' centre, rate the buskers, catch a live music show, check out the motorcycle museum, order a camel steak at the colourful Safari Club.
AND THE HONOURABLE MENTIONS ...
The home of so many exquisite wineries sitting against beautiful backdrops.
Great food, wine and modern shopping in an elegant town of stunning heritage buildings.
Broken Hill, NSW
The classic outback town with big pubs on street corners, red earth, wide blue skies, and loads to see and do.
The historic gold-mining town is great for a little prospecting, and treasure-hunting in the antique shops.
1860 gold diggings were transformed into one of the state's oldest, and loveliest, botanical gardens.
Bar Point, NSW
Get away from it all in the charming little settlement on the Hawkesbury River.
Port Fairy, Victoria
A jewel of the Great Ocean Road, with beaches, parks and fabulous eating.
Sand, sea, the national park and Hastings Street with sensational shopping.
The scenery's as green in this Byron shire haven as its alternative culture.
Five essential attributes of a perfect town
• Something that gives the town a striking character, whether that's preserved history or a lively program of things to do.
• Good eating places, with a combination of informal cafes and great restaurants, preferably using local fare.
• Interesting shopping – both the basics and out-of-the-ordinary boutiques.
• Easily accessible open spaces nearby to get up close with nature.
• Friendly locals who say "hello" on the street.