For visitors, deciding where to go in Australia can mean juggling distance, money and time. You could spend months driving around the Outback, exploring the national parks, or hanging out at beaches; or you could take an all-in, two-week “Reef ’n’ Rock” package, encompassing Australia’s outstanding trinity of must-sees.
Both options provide thoroughly Australian experiences, but either will leave you with a feeling of having merely scraped the surface of this vast country. The two big natural attractions are the 2000km-long Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast, with its complex of islands and underwater splendour, and the brooding monolith of Uluru (Ayers Rock), in the Northern Territory’s Red Centre. You should certainly try to see them, although exploration of other parts of the country will bring you into contact with more subtle, but equally rewarding, sights and opportunities.
The cities are surprisingly cosmopolitan: waves of postwar immigration from southern Europe and, more recently, Southeast Asia have done much to erode Australia’s Anglocentrism. Each Australian state has a capital stamped with its own personality, and nowhere is this more apparent than in New South Wales, where glamorous Sydney has the iconic landmarks of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Elsewhere, the sophisticated café society of Melbourne (Victoria) contrasts with the lively social scene in Brisbane (Queensland). Adelaide, in South Australia, has a human scale and old-fashioned charm, while Perth, in Western Australia, camouflages its isolation with a leisure-oriented urbanity. In Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, you’ll encounter a relaxed small city with a distinct maritime feel. The purpose-built administrative centre of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory, often fails to grip visitors, but Darwin’s continuing regeneration enlivens an exploration of the distinctive “Territory”.
Away from the suburbs, with their vast shopping malls and quarter-acre residential blocks, is the transitional “bush”, and beyond that the wilderness of the Outback – the quintessential Australian environment. Protected from the arid interior, the east coast has the pick of the country’s greenery and scenery, from the north’s tropical rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef to the surf-lined beaches further south. The east coast is backed by the Great Dividing Range, which steadily decreases in elevation as it extends from Mount Kosciuszko (2228m) in New South Wales north into tropical Queensland. Though often overlooked, Tasmania is worth the trip across the Bass Strait: you’ll be rewarded with vast tracts of temperate wilderness and a wealth of scenery, from jagged alpine mountains to almost English bucolic villages.