A beautiful reef that’s far closer to shore than the Great Barrier Reef. Tropical islands in the Indian Ocean I didn’t know about. Fantastic wineries, river cruises and luxury lodges. Oh, and a series of gorges with brilliant waterfalls and that famous Australian red rock.
I just finished up a visit to Australia for what’s called the Australia Tourism Exchange. They had writers from around the world, including two Canadians, fly to Brisbane for a conference held in Surfer’s Paradise, about an hour south of Brisbane on The Gold Coast. All to talk about tourism and travel opportunities in Australia.
Surfer’s Paradise is kind of a Ft. Lauderdale scene mixed with Myrtle Beach; with big high-rises and a lovely beach that goes on just short of forever. The shops are mid-scale and there are tourists from all over the world soaking up the sun and surf culture.
They put the media up at a sleek hotel called QT Gold Coast, with a colourful and cheeky feel and female hotel workers decked out in bright uniforms that look like blue versions of the retro (and tight-fitting) outfits worn by flight attendants with Virgin Airlines. There’s a nice pool and lovely rooms with balconies and nice views of the water or the inland waterways lined with expensive homes. Not to mention one of my favourite breakfast buffets of the year; complete with meaty Australian bacon, hugely addictive, crispy potato wedges done up like Swiss Rosti and passion fruit jam.
I had meetings with two dozen representatives of Australia tourism and also stood a few feet away from Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Marvel movies and acts as a roving ambassador for Oz tourism. Not that he took the time to say hello, or even nod.
The range of activities and attractions in Australia is wider than I had realized, with everything from sleek spas in Queensland to insanely beautiful and entirely deserted stretches of coastline. Here are a few highlights that I’ve got on my list of things to check out some time.
THE CORAL COAST This is the name they give the long (and I mean long) stretch of coast that stretches from Perth in Western Australia north to the town of Onslow or so. Western Australia, or WA as some call it, is kind of the Texas of Oz; the largest state and probably the one with the strongest frontier kind of feel.
The state is 2.5 million square km’s (about the size of Western Europe and one-third of all Australia’s land mass) and has only about 2.6 million residents. Almost all of them are huddled near Perth in the far southwest corner of the state. That leaves the northern beaches of Western Australia virtually untouched. The Ningaloo Reef, which I’d never heard of, stretches on for 260 km’s. It looks sensational, and in parts of WA the reef is just steps from the beach, which makes it easier to access than The Great Barrier Reef on the other side of the country.
Also stunning are the rock formations in Kalbarri National Park.
The Kimberleys and a mountain range called the Bungle Bungles (I want to go more than almost anywhere in the country). I’d also like to see the Margaret River wine area south of Perth. Another crazy part of the state are Cocos and Keeling Islands and Christmas Island; small specks in the Indian Ocean about three hours away by plane and closer to Indonesia than to Australia. They both look spectacular; like “an untouched version of the Maldives,” as one tourism person put it.
QUEENSLAND Canadian flights have always been into Sydney. But Air Canada begins flying to Brisbane (the capital of the state of Queensland) on June 1, so it’s definitely a place on the rise. I met a good number of Canadians on my visit to Queensland, including a girl from Toronto who was backpacking and visiting Fraser Island and a family from Calgary staying and doing Great Barrier Reef dives on tiny Lady Elliott Island and the Lady Elliot Eco-Resort.
I didn’t get into Brisbane proper, which in retrospect was a mistake. But a friend of mine who lives in Adelaide said he finds the city charming, with older homes to go with new downtown skyscrapers and good food. Brisbane is hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2018, hoping to use them to boost the city the way Toronto bid with the Pan Am Games in 2015. They even have a Brisbane sign that’s similar to the Toronto one (Brisbane’s came first, I think). The Brisbane Airport is undergoing a massive expansion, with several billion dollars being put aside for the next few years and a new runway being built as we speak. Queensland might be the most diverse state in Australia, with everything from tropical rainforests to outback desert and coastal islands with breathtaking beauty, including the Whitsundays. The Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat also looks awfully nice. And very relaxing. I’ll post a blog later about my visit to Queensland and the Fraser Coast, as well as Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast.
NITMILUK GORGE: Also known as Katherine Gorge, this seems to me to be like the Bungle Bungles, but much easier to get to. If you fly to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, you can reach the town of Katherine in about three hours, I was told. The gorge is perhaps 45 minutes outside Katherine and features a series of deep valleys with beautiful wide rivers and waterfalls in season. They have a variety of accommodations, too, from budget on up to five-star luxury. Nice.
VICTORIA: I was only in Melbourne once, and that was just for a few hours. But I hear it’s a very cool city with great shopping and a lively coffee scene, as well as great beaches quite close to town. One person I met with at the tourism exchange told me about fun tours you can take with Melbourne Sports Tours, where you get to tour the famous Melbourne Cricket Grounds and also check out Rod Laver Stadium, home of the Australian Open tennis tournament. Near Melbourne is the Yarra Valley, where I’ve been to taste fantastic wines in a lovely, quiet setting. Also close to the city is the Mornington Peninsula, which has some lovely waterfronts, non-migrating dolphins you can see year-round, dairy farms, cherry orchards and wineries specializing in cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. It’s said to be cooler than Melbourne in summer and warmer in winter, which sounds good to me. www.visitvictoria.com
SOUTH AUSTRALIA: I’ve never been to this state, but I hear Adelaide is a cool city with great shopping, galleries and wonderful food. The nearby Barossa Valley is Australia’s top wine region, with outstanding red wines in particular and sumptuous Cabernet and Shiraz. There are some interesting German villages I’d like to check out, not to mention Kangaroo Island and the seaside town of Port Lincoln. The northern part of the state sounds fantastic, with cool rock formations and ancient craters and funky towns such as Coober Pedy. http://southaustralia.com/en-us
NEW SOUTH WALES: I’ll post a blog later about Sydney, which is just starting a massive light show called Vivid that features colourful images played out on iconic buildings such as the Sydney Opera House. I met with some folks from Byron Bay, which sounds like a great surf town with a wonderful food scene. Apparently the area around Mudgee, northwest of Sydney, has become the newest wine area in New South Wales. Silverton is part of the New South Wales’ outback region and is where parts of the Mad Max movies were filmed, I was told. The Jenolan Caves look fun for people into caving and underground explorations. http://www.visitnsw.com/
GREAT WALKS OF AUSTRALIA: This is a company that provides fantastic walks all over the country. They’ve now got a walking tour in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. There are four walks in Tasmania, which I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting. The one I’d love to take includes stunning Freycinet Bay. Overall, Tazzie (the Aussies insist on shortening damn near every word there is) looks like a fantastic destination.
LUXURY LODGES OF AUSTRALIA: This is another outfit with properties all over the country. I was lucky enough to stay at their Longitude 131 Near Uluru (Ayers Rock) a few years back and absolutely loved it. I’m told they’ve made significant renovations, including outdoor decks. The units were stunningly designed, going so far as to carve a hole in one of the walls so you could have a view of Uluru in the golden light of morning while you had your shower.
Several of the lodges caught my eye, including Arkaba and the Southern Ocean Lodge in South Australia, Sal Salis in Western Australia (overlooking the Ningaloo Reef) and Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, where I was lucky enough to have dinner a few years ago. Lord Howe might be the most amazing place I’ve ever seen; an isolated dot in the middle of the ocean between Australia and New Zealand, which has the most southerly coral reef on the planet and just a handful of residents on a truly spectacular island.
Like I said, a pretty amazing and wide-ranging series of options in one sensational country.