Some destinations in Australia are really enhanced when seen from a different perspective. In some cases special modes of transport can open up otherwise inaccessible areas and seeing places with a guide can provide enriching insights. Then there is the simple, joyful indulgence of a truly unique lodge or a meal that you’ll talk about for years.
So if your autopilot is set to budget-mode, the next time you’re planning a trip look beyond the obvious to see if there is something special en route that will elevate your travels from great to unforgettable — as the saying goes, “You will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
It’s often difficult to appreciate how much of a landscape you miss without taking to the skies. You can explore South Australia’s dramatic Flinders Ranges on the ground but only a scenic flight lets you fully appreciate the crater-like form and immense size of Wilpena Pound and its surrounding bands of rippling mountains. From a helicopter, Tasmania’s rugged wilderness reveals jagged peaks and hidden sapphire lakes, while flying over Uluru shows a rounded form that isn’t evident at ground level.
Hot air balloons add another unique aspect to the art of flying. Try drifting over the lush hills and coast of Byron Bay, or float with dozens of other balloons over Canberra during the annual Balloon Spectacular (March). How about a heli pub crawl? In Darwin, a seven-hour adventure drops in at five pubs while giving a bird’s eye view of the coast and surrounding savannah, billabongs and creeks.
From the blue-green patchwork of the Great Barrier Reef to the banded beehive domes of Purnululu in Western Australia, flying offers a view so unique and striking you’ll be vowing to do it more often.
Understanding the places we travel through can make them far more interesting and meaningful, but onsite interpretive signage, if provided, will only tell you so much. Travel with a guide however, and you’ll discover answers to questions you might not even think to ask.
In South Australia’s Renmark, a Murray River Walk involves four days of ambling across remote parts of our longest river and returning to the comforts of a moving houseboat, complete with rooftop spa and five-star cuisine, at night. It’s a soulful and enlightening journey, and guides are hugely knowledgeable on the complexities of the river’s ecosystem and Indigenous history.
Venture out with Naturaliste Charters from Bremer Bay, a five-hour drive east of Perth, and you’ll really appreciate having a marine biologist onboard. The deep-sea Bremer Canyon attracts one of the southern hemisphere’s biggest congregations of killer whales, and day trips offer spectacles worthy of a David Attenborough documentary.
When it comes to understanding Indigenous culture, seek stories direct from the source. The Wukalina Walk is a four-day Aboriginal owned and operated guided walk in Tasmania’s Bay of Fires. Days are spent with Palawa guides while nights are spent glamping in domed wooden huts.
At the other end of the country, Venture North offer deep insights into land and culture while visiting communities on the remote Cobourg Peninsula, the northern tip of Arnhem Land.
Sometimes you just yearn for a good bed with crisp cotton sheets and fat pillows, ideally in an epic location. The safari lodge at Bamurru Plains in Kakadu is one such place. Luxurious bungalows on stilts have mesh walls open to nature. The real draw here, though, is exclusive access to 300 square kilometres of floodplains and savannah woodland on the Mary River. Private airboat safaris travel across paperbark swamps and floodplains, passing crocodiles, water buffalo and flocks of magpie geese. It’s an intimate immersion into Kakadu you will get no other way, plus the airboat barramundi fishing here is legendary.
For a safari experience of a different kind, spend a night at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra. Each luxury African-themed suite has a thick glass wall to an enclosure that lets guests ‘share’ their room with lions, cheetahs, tigers or even a Malayan sun bear.
For indulgence just for the hell of it, Woodbridge on Derwent is Tasmania’s only Small Luxury Hotel of the World. This restored 1825 riverfront house near Hobart has been likened to ‘being given the keys to a friend’s country mansion’. The maximum 16 guests have free reign of this grand property and discreet staff only appear when summoned via the house phones.
We do our best but there’s a limit to what you can achieve in a camp kitchen. If you’re hankering for specialty ingredients or have an occasion to celebrate, sometimes it’s best to hand over to someone else — plus, consider how a stunning setting can enhance your enjoyment of it all.
Sunset dinner cruises up Nitmiluk Gorge in the Northern Territory serve three-course meals while dramatic orange rock walls and Indigenous stories float past. Alternatively, dinners in the desert mean a dazzling light show as the sun sinks over Uluru and the distant domes of Kata Tjuta. The Tali Wiru experience at Ayers Rock Resort offers bucketloads of ambience as well as bush tucker inspired dishes such as pressed wallaby with fermented quandong, or pan roasted toothfish.
If you want to focus on the food itself, keep an eye out for Chefs Hats. The Australian Good Food Guide has awarded many regional restaurants this highly coveted accolade for their use of quality ingredients, technique, presentation, and, of course, taste. Paper Daisy, overlooking Cabarita Beach on NSW’s Tweed Coast, has mastered casual luxury with a fresh blue and white decor. In the resort town of Dunsborough in WA’s south-west, Yarri dishes up treats such as cuttlefish with white beans and guanciale (a cured meat), followed by mandarin and ginger popcorn.
There is no shortage of wineries to explore across the country, but in Manjimup, WA, The Truffle & Wine Co adds black truffle to everything from gnocchi to panna cotta. You can even watch trained dogs sniff out the black gold on a truffle hunt.
If you’re into DIY and want to impress your friends with a bottle of your own creation, take part in a Blend Your Own Rum Experience at Queensland’s Bundaberg Rum Distillery or mix your own gin botanicals at Margaret River’s Giniversity in WA.
BOATS TO ADVENTURE
Put simply, boats can take you places wheels can’t. Take the Whitsundays for example. To explore the 74 islands, trade your van for a private yacht or catamaran. While day boats deposit tourists briefly at key attractions, such as the dazzling Whitehaven Beach or the sandy swirls of Hill Inlet, with your own vessel you’ll able to linger after the crowds have gone, plus find new treasures of your own. Life on the water makes a glamorous contrast to overland travel, allowing you to combine sailing with snorkelling, hiking, and sunset drinks on deck. A half-day briefing before setting sail will ensure you have the necessary skills.
For those keen on fishing, there are plenty of charters that travel to places a 4WD can’t. Consider Wildcard Luxury Fishing’s multi-day safaris to remote Gove and East Arnhem Land in the NT, incorporating blue water and reef fishing in the Arafura Sea with views of rocky escarpments and waterfalls. Off Geraldton in WA, a fishing, diving and snorkelling paradise exists in the Abrolhos Islands, which is made up of 122 coral cays, reefs and the aqua blue Indian Ocean.
For serious scuba divers, seeing the Great Barrier Reef is a must, yet day visits to this sprawling 2000km World Heritage icon are somewhat limiting. Heading out on a dive live-aboard, such as Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, for 3–7 days is not a cheap proposition, however the quality of remote dive sites reached and the number of dives included make them vastly more exciting and, ultimately, good value.
We can’t talk about luxury without mentioning that most indulgent past time of all. Yes, getting pampered is fun but it could also be justified as ‘necessary’ for body maintenance — consider the mind-calming benefits of a soak in hot springs after a long journey, a massage to soothe muscles aching from hours of corrugations, or a body treatment to rehydrate skin parched from too long in the sun.
Spas are in most large towns and just about every five-star hotel, but some are more memorable than others. Stables Day Spa in SA offers stunning views across the Adelaide Hills while being set within the historic Mount Lofty House — also a boutique hotel with three-hatted restaurant.
Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula is home to the Peninsula Hot Springs, a bathing paradise where thermal mineral pools of all shapes and sizes are dotted across 17 hectares amongst trees, tucked in caves and even perched on a hilltop. When the heat gets a bit much, icy plunge pools offer a bracing reprieve.
In the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Japanese Bath House offers a taste of onsen life. In traditional Japanese style, this is a place to embrace the quiet ritual of bathing, and once you’re done soaking in mineral rich waters, continue with a sip of something at their teahouse.
After one of these luxurious interludes you’ll be ready to hit the open road again with renewed energy.
- Flinders Ranges, SA: wrightsair.com.au
- Cradle Mountain, TAS: cradlemountainhelicopters.com.au
- Byron Bay Ballooning, NSW: byronbayballooning.com.au
- Heli pub crawl, NT: airbornesolutions.com.au
- Murray River Walk, SA: murrayrivertrails.com.au
- Naturaliste Charters, WA: whales-australia.com.au
- Wukalina Walk, TAS: wukalinawalk.com.au
- Venture North, NT: venturenorth.com.au
- Bamurru Plains, NT: Bamurruplains.com
- Jamala Wildlife Lodge, ACT: Jamalawildlifelodge.com.au
- Woodbridge on Derwent, TAS: woodbridgenn.com.au
- Nabilil Dreaming sunset dinner cruise, NT: nitmiluktours.com.au
- Tali Wiru, NT: ayersrockresort.com.au
- The Truffle & Wine Co, WA: wineandtruffle.com
- Blend Your Own Rum, QLD: bundabergrum.com.au
- Cumberland Charter Yachts, QLD: ccy.com.au
- Wildcard Luxury Fishing, NT: wildcardluxurycruises.com.au
- Abrolhos Adventures, WA: abrolhosadventures.com.au
- Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, QLD: mikeball.com
- Stables Day Spa, SA: mtloftyhouse.com.au
- Peninsula Hot Springs, VIC: peninsulahotsprings.com
- Japanese Bath House, NSW: japanesebathhouse.com.au