Skip: Harbour Bridge Climb; sky-high vistas and cost: $194 for the cheapest tour Do: Mrs. Macquarie's Chair; spectacular city views at a down-to-earth price: free
Finding Outback stand-ins in this big, empty country isn’t terribly difficult. Things get harder when you’re looking for experiences that will measure up to two of the country’s biggest urban landmarks: the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. You wouldn’t want to skip them entirely; they’re beautiful structures that look even better in person, where you get a real sense of how they frame, and are framed by, the city around them. But if it’s lovely views you want, you don’t need to tour the opera house or haul yourself up for a walk across the bridge just because Oprah did. (Besides, if she wants to spend $200-plus for a ticket, more power to her.) For a stunning, free—and less heart-attack inducing—perch, you could head to a place called Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a 201-year-old bench carved out of a natural rock ledge in the Royal Botanic Garden (Mrs. Macquarie's Rd., free entry). Looking out on the city from Mrs. Macquarie’s as dusk approaches, the dipping sun paints a spectrum of citrus colors over the white sheen of the opera house. Nearby, thousands of flying-fox bats swoop into ginkgo biloba trees, where they nest each day. “Bats in Sydney” isn’t listed in most guidebooks—and, frankly, would that be much of a selling point?—but the sight of thousands of them spiraling through the dusk is unexpectedly captivating. “There’s this idea of them being scary, but if you come here in the evening, you can see the light shine through their wings, and they’re so translucent and smooth, it’s magical,” says Larissa Trompf, who’s studying animal behavior at Macquarie University, in Sydney.
That’s another fringe benefit of skipping the marquee routes to the monuments—when you’re not running around dutifully checking items off of a must-see list, your eyes are open enough to make your own discoveries. In Sydney, that might mean skipping famous Bondi Beach in favor of the 3.7-mile coastal path to Coogee, a lovely, quieter stretch of sand that’s home to dads tossing a rugby ball with their sons and a class for tween surfers.
LESSONS FROM THE WILD SIDE
Skip: Taronga Zoo; $45 entry; "encounters" programs: $26 each Do: Hunter Valley Zoo; $18 entry fee—petting included; bonus: surrounded by gorgeous, world-class wineries!
On a day trip out of town, you could find yourself at the Hunter Valley Zoo, which is tucked away in one of Australia’s many wine regions, a two-hour drive north. Sydney is practically papered with ads for its famed Taronga Zoo, but admission costs $45 and up-close “encounters” with koalas, owls, and reptiles run an extra $26. Hunter Valley Zoo is small—10 acres, at most—yet it’s home to every Aussie creature you could hope to see: kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats, and a menagerie of rainbow-hued birds (138 Lomas Lane, Nukalba, free entry). The best part is that twice a day, a handler lets visitors into the koala pen and nudges one awake from its perch on a eucalyptus. You aren’t allowed to hold them, but you can pet them, and their fur is as soft as a rabbit’s.
LESSONS FROM THE ROAD
Skip: the Great Ocean Road; Sees a lot of traffic in high-tourist season; three-hour flight from Sydney Do: Captain Cook Highway; the 47-mile coastal road runs between Cairns, in the south, and Mossman, in the north, and connects to the spectacular Cape Tribulation rainforest and Great Barrier Reef
Of course, any dream trip to Australia requires one splurge: the Great Barrier Reef. The only time- and cost-effective way to get there is to hop a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, on the Queensland coast. Plenty of operators run reef trips right out of Cairns—85 percent of the 1.6 million tourists who see the reef annually go through Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, the two most popular sites, and 40 percent of visitors use one of the 10 largest tour groups. But for the reef, avoiding tourists is all the more crucial—the more people you snorkel with, the fewer fish you’ll see. You’ll need to go through Cairns, but only because it offers access to lesser-known reef towns such as Cape Tribulation.
Sites the Locals Use
Three Aussie booking tools that put the icons within reach.
HOTELS: Wotif.comlists four- and five-star properties at about half price. In Sydney, for instance, suites with kitchenettes at Mantra 2 downtown typically go for $258, but on Wotif, you'd pay just $137.
We can pretty much guarantee that at least one of these beautiful, inviting cities is just a drive away. America's surprising state capitals are a truly varied bunch of burghs, but they have a few awesome things in common, including great cuisine, art, history, and four seasons of outdoor activities.