DOWN UNDER, DONE RIGHT

How to See the Best of Australia—On a Budget!

The mission: Plan a trip Down Under that skips the usual tourist suspects but still captures all the sea-, sun-, and kangaroo-soaked magic of Oz.

By Andrea Minarcek, Thursday, Dec 8, 2011, 4:00 AM

Mrs. Macquarie's Chair

The view of Sydney Harbour from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, in the Royal Botanic Garden

(Nicky Ryan)

Hunter Valley Zoo

Kangaroo feeding time at the Hunter Valley Zoo

(Nicky Ryan)

LESSONS FROM THE OUTBACK

Skip: Ayers Rock; it sees a half-million tourists a year; four-hour flight from Sydney
Do: Chillagoe; easier Outback access, and a population of just 350

Every afternoon at about 4 p.m. in the Chillagoe Hotel Motel, owner Ray Neary assumes his perch on a bar stool by the entrance and waits to greet his clientele. First come the wild peacocks, who usually show up once Neary tosses them a few leftover scraps from lunch. Soon after, almost everyone else in Chillagoe, Queensland (population: 350), files in to take the birds’ place. Off-duty hands from the cattle station, miners from the nearby gold quarries, a few aboriginal men in jeans—they all come to eat Frisbee-size steaks with drafts of XXXX (pronounced “fourex”), the Queensland state beer. The wood-paneled walls are lined with posters of Australian rugby teams, and the jukebox plays (no joke) Men at Work’s "Land Down Under." “Everyone thinks you have to go out in the middle of nowhere, fly all the way to Ayers Rock or something, to find the Outback,” Neary says. “But this”—he slams his palm on the pine bar—“is the real deal, and it’s a heck of a lot closer to civilization.”

Now, that’s what you might call a real Outback steak house, and if it doesn’t exactly look like you’d expect—peacocks instead of kangaroos, XXXX instead of Foster’s—maybe that’s because Americans have been playing by the wrong Aussie rules. Many tourists heading Down Under get stuck in a sort of Australian triangle between the country’s three most popular sites: Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Ayers (which the locals call Uluru)—despite the fact that it takes three intra-country flights to do it all. Not that there’s anything wrong with the triangle trip. Australia is halfway around the world for everything this side of New Zealand, and no one wants to save up all the necessary time and money and miss the greatest hits.

But what if you like going your own way, skipping the usual, packaged-tour suspects in favor of something more authentic? Could you plan a vacation to Australia with substitutions that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve missed the boat? No Ayers Rock. No Sydney Harbour Bridge climb. No Great Ocean Road. It’s a tempting idea: fewer crowds, lower cost, plus a genuine Aussie sense of adventure. It’s also pretty fraught: How will you feel when your friends back home ask to see photos of Ayers Rock and you say—well, actually, check out these great shots from Chillagoe!

Five years ago, before social media connected everyone in a near-endless network of friends of friends of kinda-sorta-friends, pulling off a no-tourist tour might not have worked. You could study up before you left and make educated guesses about decent alternates, but you’d still be traveling largely by the guidebook. Now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, anyone and her mother can get insider tips from locals—new “friends” you made via that old neighbor’s ex-roommate who spent a year abroad in Sydney.

That’s the only way you’re going to find yourself in the likes of Chillagoe, an all-around charming town, from the peacock lunch-guests at the Chillagoe Hotel Motel (Tower St., 011-61/7-4094-7168, steaks from $14) to the limestone caves in nearby Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, where there are 30,000-year-old aboriginal rock-wall paintings. It sits just past a string of coffee and sugar-cane plantations on the west side of the Great Dividing Range, and it’s dotted with turn-of-the-century buildings, such as the Chillagoe Guesthouse, a six-room inn housed in the town’s original 1906 post office (16-18 Queen St., doubles from $124, including breakfast). Can any of this compete with majestic Ayers Rock in terms of eye candy? Probably not. That’s the thing about icon-free traveling: It’s about trade-offs. As many as a half-million people visit Uluru every year. It’s a four-hour flight from Sydney, and once you’ve seen it—well, you’ve seen it. There’s not much else to do. Chillagoe, on the other hand, gets a couple thousand visitors annually and you can make it there from Cairns—a North Queensland base camp—in less than three hours by car. “We get a lot of Aussie visitors from the coast,” says Eugene Miglas, the owner of Chillagoe Guesthouse, “but I don’t think Chillagoe’s on the radar for most international tourists yet.”

See photos of Australia and New Zealand

 

LESSONS FROM SYDNEY

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.

Cape Tribulation, in the heart of the ancient Daintree Rainforest, is a tropical playground of hiking paths and wide, empty swaths of sand, with easy access to some of the most pristine parts of the reef. The area looks a lot like Hawaii 100 years ago: palm-tree-wrapped peaks reaching for the sky above and sliding into the ocean below—and not a single resort or mega-development mucking up the view. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cairns is a treat in its own right. Two-lane Captain Cook Highway hugs the ocean like a paved wave, curving between sand-dollar white beaches and the camouflage-colored foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It’s a worthy replacement for the famed Great Ocean Road near Melbourne, which, pretty though it is, would require yet another flight from Sydney.


LESSONS FROM THE REEF

Skip: Cairns; 27 dive outfits; gets 70 percent of visitors from overseas
Do: Cape Tribulation; one dive company—and it's the only one you'd want

“People come to Australia to meet real Australians,” says Dawn Gray, who owns and runs the Cape Trib Farmstay, “and here I am. At a big hotel, you maybe get to say hello to other travelers around the pool.” Gray’s tropical-fruit farm has 88 acres and five Swiss Family Robinson–type cabins, each with its own veranda and views of Mt. Sorrow, to the north (Cape Tribulation Rd., from $139, with breakfast, two-night minimum). Every morning, guests find a basket in the refrigerator with their name on it, overflowing with complimentary fruit such as papaya, wattleseed, and jackfruit, many grown by Gray on the property. (Just down the road—the only road in town—another farm charges $26 per person for an “Exotic Fruit Tasting.”) In the evenings, Gray makes tea and helps book tours on the reef and in the rain forest. She knows all the operators personally; just 101 people live in Cape Tribulation year-round.

That said, there is only one snorkeling outfitter in Cape Tribulation—though it’s the same one you’d choose even in a sea of options. Ocean Safari Adventure keeps crowds in check by only running one or two trips a day on a 25-passenger vessel (Cape Tribulation Rd., half-day snorkeling trips from $123 per person). The snorkeling trips last well over two hours, and in wet suits, the 70-degree water feels balmy. “The sections of the reef we’re heading to are in such better condition than most of the rest,” says Tristan Giardini, an Ocean Safari snorkeling instructor with blond dreads and a sunburn. “Even people with good intentions sometimes bump it and break parts off when they snorkel, but here in the cape, it’s just us, so the reef is almost perfect.”

The Mackay and Undine reef sections, where Giardini leads tours, are just as spectacular as he promises: orange-and-white striped anemone fish, ledges of pink coral, curious sea turtles, and starfish of such a startlingly bright cornflower blue that they seem spray-painted. But the boat rides to and from shore can be just as exciting. As the catamaran is pounding through the choppy surf, about 200 yards away a massive blue torpedo shoots out of the ocean toward the sky. Giardini had mentioned that humpback whales migrate along this stretch of coast from August to September, but this looks more like a rocket than a mammal. When it crashes back into the water, it shakes the boat like an earthquake.

The passengers, of course, are thrilled, but they’re mellow compared with Giardini. While everyone else stays obediently glued to their seats, he grabs his camera and races to the front of the rocking boat to try to photograph a whale in midair. “Ah, isn’t this amazing?” he yells, followed by a few ecstatic expletives, shouted into the wind. And suddenly, you realize you’ve just seen the highlight of your icon-free trip. The whale? Sure—the friends at home are going to love seeing those pictures. But it’s Giardini’s utterly unjaded reaction—doesn’t he do this every day?—that reminds you of the difference between a trip crammed with must-see destinations and one designed for maximum spontaneity and authenticity. Any time your tour guide is having at least as much fun as the tourists, you know that you’ve had a very g’day, mate.

 

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