New South Wales is Australia’s premier state in more ways than one. The oldest of the six states, and also the most densely populated, its 7.3 million residents make up a third of the country’s population. The vast majority occupy the urban and suburban sprawl that straggles along the state’s thousand-plus kilometres of Pacific coastline, and the consistently mild climate and many beaches draw a fairly constant stream of visitors, especially during the summer holiday season, when thousands of Australians descend on the coast to enjoy the extensive surf beaches and other oceanside attractions.
South of Sydney, the coast offers a string of low-key family resorts and fishing ports, good for watersports and idle pottering. To the north the climate gradually becomes warmer and the coastline more popular, but there are still plenty of tiny national parks and inland towns where you can escape it all. One of the most enjoyable beach resorts in Australia is Byron Bay, chic these days, but still retaining something of its slightly offbeat, alternative appeal, radiating from the thriving hippie communes of the lush, hilly North Coast Hinterland. For those with a true desire for escape the crowds, there are the Pacific islands far off the north coast of New South Wales: subtropical Lord Howe Island, 700km northeast of Sydney, and Norfolk Island, 900km further northeast, inhabited by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.
Just over 280km southwest of Sydney is the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which was carved out of New South Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century as an independent base for the new national capital. While Canberra struggles to shed its dull image, it is the principal gateway to the Snowy Mountains, which offer skiing in winter and glorious hiking in summer.
Inland New South Wales may not be a stand-alone holiday destination but it gives a real insight into the Australian way of life and covers a strikingly wide range of landscapes, from the rugged slopes of the Great Dividing Range to the red-earth desert of the Outback. Inland towns such as Bathurst and Dubbo date back to the early days of Australian exploration. Free (non-convict) settlers appropriated vast areas of rich pastureland here and made immense fortunes off the back of sheep farming, establishing the agricultural prosperity that continues to this day. When gold was discovered near Bathurst in 1851, and the first goldrush began, New South Wales’ fortunes were assured.
Moving west the land becomes increasingly desolate and arid as you head into the harsh Outback regions, where the mercury can climb well above the 40°C mark in summer and even places that look large on the map turn out to be tiny, isolated communities. The small town of Bourke is traditionally regarded as the beginning of the real Outback; other destinations in the area include the eccentric opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge and, in the far west of the state almost at the South Australian border, the surprisingly arty mining settlement of Broken Hill.