Australia's best kept holiday destination secrets

Whether your ideal short break is to get close to whales, unwind at a spa or fossick for gold, there’s the perfect destination in Australia.

Hit the heights

This great summer touring route takes you into the heart of the Victorian Alps. At Wangaratta, in pastoral northern Victoria, the road begins close to the Murray River, peaks at Mt Hotham at 1820m and ends 300km away, near the coast at Bairnsdale. An adventure in itself, taking this road offers a host of outdoor activities. At Dinner Plain, you can emulate the Man from Snowy River and gallop across the high country with Dinner Plain Trail Rides (www.dinnerplaintrailrides.com). At Porepunkah, 10 minutes from Bright, it’s possible to soar like an eagle in a tandem microlight flight with the Eagle School of Microlighting and Hang-Gliding (www.eagleschool.com.au). At Mt Buffalo, you can abseil with mountaineer David Chitty (www.adventureguidesaustralia.com.au).
And, for those who prefer a paddle or a peddle, there are half-day canoeing trips on the Ovens River with the Rio’s Alpine Centre (rios.netc.net.au), and a three-day bike ride on the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail (www.railtrail.com.au), where you can cycle 94km through a rural idyll from Wangaratta, through Beechworth, Myrtleford, Porepunkah and Bright.
Hot air balloon enthusiasts can take to the air at Mansfield with Global Ballooning (www.global ballooning.com.au).
Getting there: Drive north of Melbourne along the Hume Highway to Wangaratta.Contact: www.visitvictoria.com.

Walk on the wild side

It’s the perfect place to go on safari. Basking like a great whale in the Southern Ocean, Kangaroo Island is both an untamed wilderness and a land of milk and honey. At 155km long by 55km wide, it’s Australia’s third largest island and its 4350 inhabitants are easily outnumbered by the 500,000 wallabies, 15,000 kangaroos, 25,000 koalas, numerous echidnas, platypuses, fairy penguins, sea lions, seals and 256 bird species. In this spectacular wilderness, the locals put on a fine feast, thanks to their local produce and magnificent seafood, including wild salmon and marron, as well as sheep’s yogurt and cheese, honey and succulent lamb (fed on saltbush). To sample the local produce, go to the Penguin Stop Cafe at Penneshaw.
On the rugged coastline (reminiscent of the Atlantic coast of Donegal, Ireland), there are beautiful beaches with accommodation that blends into the landscape, such as the six self-catering log cabins at Hanson Bay, the four-star Kangaroo Island Lodge at American River or the lighthouse keeper cottages at Cape Willoughby, Cape Borda and Cape du Couedic. Visit Seal Bay to see the sea lions and the fairy penguins at Penneshaw. There are also the Remarkable Rocks, Admiral’s Arch, Kelly Hill Caves and the island’s mini-desert with its towering sand dunes.
Getting there: Take Emu or Rex Airways from Adelaide Airport (30 minutes) to Kingscote, or take the SeaLink ferry from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw.Contact: www.southaustralia.com; phone 1300 655 276.

Go for gold

More than 150 years after Victoria’s gold rush, the rivers of gold have begun to flow again in its goldfields. Half a kilometre under Bendigo, miners have struck a rich lode of the precious metal. When mining ended 50 years ago, 25 million ounces had been extracted, enriching the region and creating some of Australia’s most beautiful 19th-century towns. Today, historic Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine are fascinating places to visit, with their heritage buildings, fine restaurants and comfy B&Bs all creating the chance to experience the good life. At Bendigo, gold still glitters in the old shafts of the Central Deborah mine, now open to the public. Just outside Ballarat is Sovereign Hill, where the battle of the Eureka Stockade in 1854 is recreated most nights in a spectacular light and sound show.
A drive along the 300km Golden Way is a must. Stop off at Clunes, where Heath Ledger strutted up the main street in the film Ned Kelly, and take the waters at the spa town Hepburn Springs. Then there’s Maryborough, which US novelist Mark Twain described as “a railway station with a town attached”. This white elephant of a station still stands, a testament to the dreams, follies and incredible wealth of days gone by.
Getting there: Drive 112km from Melbourne north to Ballarat.Contact: www.visitvictoria.com

Beat a retreat

This retreat sits atop one of the highest spots in the Hunter Valley and the vista from every one of the resort’s 74 stylish villas, across the district’s vineyards, is breathtaking. Designed to complement its sister retreat, the Golden Door, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, Elysia promises a six-star experience to return the mind and body to balance through treatments, exercise, balanced gourmet cuisine and relaxation techniques. Whether you choose to do the results-driven 7 Day Golden Door Program, or opt for a more relaxed, independent two-day stay, you’ll be assigned a program co-ordinator. Either way, you’ll have full use of the resort’s facilities – the 25-metre indoor pool, tennis courts, yoga and Pilates studios, and spa treatment area, which is the last word in soothing designer luxury.
Getting there: A 90-minute drive north-west of Sydney.Contact: www.goldendoor.com.au; phone: 1800 212 011.

Reef Reverie

Affectionately known as “Rotto” by Sandgropers, Rottnest Island looks as if it should be on the sunny Great Barrier Reef, rather than a short sail from the icy rollers of the Southern Ocean. Just a quick ferry journey away from Perth, this island has one of the planet’s most southerly coral reefs, thanks to the Leeuwin Current that sweeps down from the Timor Sea, ensuring Rotto’s sea temperature hovers around 27°C. Just beyond the island’s white sandy shores are 30 types of coral and 97 species of tropical fish. Green turtles are quite common and a resident pod of dolphins often cavorts around as the ferry approaches the island.
For its size – just 11km by 4.5km – Rotto packs a powerful scenic punch. Its beaches and sheltered coves are beautiful and there are forest remnants inland, white salt pans edged with blood-red succulent plants, a freshwater lake, two majestic lighthouses and a population of 12,000 quokkas (tiny marsupial-like wallablies that were mistaken by early settlers for large rats, hence Rottnest, a derivation of “rat’s nest”).
It’s the perfect destination for a simple island holiday of salt water and sandals, made affordable by inexpensive seaside accommodation. A four-bed villa (which easily fits six) can range from $560 a week (without water view) to $970 (with view). Even if you throw in the cost of return air fares from the east coast, it’s one of the cheapest self-catering island holidays in Australia. Cars are banned, but there are regular shuttle buses around the island or you can beach-hop on a hire bike.
Getting there: Take the ferry from Fremantle or Perth’s Swan River, (08) 9421 5888.Contact: www.westernaustralia.com, phone: 1800 812 808; www.rottnest.wa.gov.au; or www.rottnestexpress.com.au

Step back in time

Clare Valley has been called a little slice of Tuscany under the great southern sun. With its 19th-century landscape of quaint vineyards and heritage-listed cottages, it must be one of the most beautiful wine regions in Australia. Follow the Riesling Trail (on foot or bicycle) for 24km from Auburn to Clare and you’ll be gradually taken back in time. There’s a gentler pace of life among the valley’s towns and villages, with their fragrant rose gardens and elegant church spires. Today, the valley is known for its Polish Hill and Watervale rieslings, and other premium whites and reds, grown at such well-known wineries as Jim Barry, Grosset, Mount Horrocks, Annie’s Lane, Stringy Brae, Pike’s and Skillogalee, among others. Next to Sevenhill Cellars is the valley’s top place to stay – Thorn Park Country House (phone: 08 8843 4304 or visit www.thorn park.com.au), famous for its fine food and warm hospitality.
Getting there: From Adelaide, it’s a two-hour drive north.Contact: www.southaustralia.com; phone 1300 655 276.

Rolling on the river

If you want to see what Sydney Harbour was like before settlement, pay a visit to the Hawkesbury River. Anyone who’s taken the train between Sydney and Newcastle will have experienced that jolt of wonder as the train emerges from a railway cutting onto the old iron bridge. There, in an instant, is a huge expanse of water, sparkling in a wilderness of eucalypt forests. It’s breathtaking. Bounded by hills, golden sandstone outcrops and national park, the Hawkesbury is undoubtedly an area of outstanding natural beauty. And what better way to explore it than on a houseboat.
At sleepy Brooklyn, you can rent a 10-berth houseboat from around $1000 a weekend, and around $1350 for a week. The houseboats come in all shapes and sizes – some budget, others “luxury”. They’re easy to manage and come with a booklet with everything you need to know - invaluable information on how to manage the boat, where it’s safe to go, where you can stock up with provisions, eat out in style, have a drink at a local pub, and fish. There’s much to explore. Go west (turn left) from Brooklyn Marina and you’ll find Berowra Waters; go east (right), then south, and you pass the settlement of Hawkesbury River (on the main rail line from Sydney to Newcastle), with its restaurants and provisions store, and then the sandy beaches, sheltered bays and inlets of Cowan Creek. A great spot to fish for flathead, bream and jewfish is Gunya Beach (45 minutes from the marina), opposite Lion Island. Next is Cottage Point and the waterside Cottage Point Inn Restaurant where you can moor and have an excellent dinner, while watching the lights dance in the water at dusk. During the day, find a yellow mooring and take the dinghy to shore for bushwalks and picnics, or just have evening drinks on board in a beautiful sheltered bay.
Getting there: A 70-minute drive north-west of Sydney.Contact: www.tnsw.me.com.au; or www.brooklynmarina.com.au, phone (02) 9985 7722.

Fairway to heaven

Just south of Coolum Beach on the Sunshine Coast is a golfer’s paradise – a resort where you can improve your handicap and then be pampered at a luxurious spa at the end of the fairway. Just a few minutes’ stroll from the 18th hole, the Hyatt Regency Coolum’s Sun Spa has 19 suites and a glorious choice of treatments.
The resort’s superb golf course – home to the Australian PGA Championships (December 2-5) – is set within 150 hectares of bushland next to the Mt Coolum National Park. At the centre of the Hyatt Regency resort is the Village Square and an array of dining outlets. Cars are banned and visitors get around by shuttle, golf buggy or bicycle. A big attraction for parents is Camp Hyatt, the resort’s recreational area for children, where activities for four separate age groups are supervised by professionals.
Getting there: From Brisbane, it’s 70 minutes by car.Contact: www.coolum.regency.hyatt.com, phone (07) 5446 1234; or www.tq.com.au.

Vintage Wilderness

Wine and wilderness blend beautifully at the Hidden Valley Forest Retreat in Margaret River. Surrounded by some of Australia’s top wineries, this peaceful retreat sits in 70 hectares of mature forest and has a lake full of marron, where croaking frogs are testament to the pristine nature of the property’s wetlands. The retreat has four villas, one by the lake and the other three in the forest, and each is as stylish as it is secluded. Tempting as it is to stay in peaceful isolation, don’t pass over the rest of Margaret River. Bordered by sea on three sides, this picturesque area is famous for its surf beaches and for its 60 wineries – including Leeuwin Estate, Cullen, Voyager, Cape Mentelle, Pierro, Vasse Felix, Devil’s Lair and Moss Wood – that excel at making cabernet-merlot blends and chardonnay. Many of them have excellent cellar door restaurants. A highlight in the Margaret River calendar is the Leeuwin Estate Concert (February/March), which in the past has starred Diana Ross, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Ray Charles and Michael Crawford.
Getting there: From Perth, drive the 280km south to Margaret River.Contact: www.westernaustralia.com; or www.yourhiddenvalley.com, phone (08) 9755 1066.

South sea paradise

Getting there Less than two hours by plane from Sydney and Brisbane.
Imagine an isle with Hawaiian spectacle, Tahitian beauty and Seychelles serenity, all rolled into 15 square kilometres. This old volcano has got the lot: exquisite scenery, pristine beaches and virgin rainforest, plus all the boutique hotels and restaurants you'd expect to find in the big city. Lord Howe is close enough to Sydney and Brisbane to make it the perfect weekender.
At the south end of this World Heritage-listed island, two black basalt mountains, Lidgbird and Gower, rise out of the Tasman Sea like dark sentinels. The crescent-shaped island has a turquoise lagoon that runs the length of the sheltered west coast, where Bali Ha'i sunsets turn the waters of the offshore reef red.
On Ned's Beach, you can hand-feed schools of metre-long king fish and snorkel around coral gardens full of rainbow-coloured marine life. Up Malabar Hill, there's a bird sanctuary where — during the breeding season — you'll find tens of thousands of black terns nesting there. But do avoid getting too close or you may find yourself in a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. From Malabar's summit, you can see the entire island rising like an emerald in a sapphire sea.
Luckily, Lord Howe has every style of accommodation — from self-catering units and historic family run properties (such as Pinetrees) to delightful boutique hotels. Top choice is the superbly located Capella Lodge, built on a deserted stretch of the south coast facing Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower. From the deck of Capella Lodge's White Gallinule restaurant, you can see and smell the surf crashing on the rocks below.
Lowdown Once visited, this Polynesian-style island — that blends tranquillity with the finer aspects of city living — is rarely forgotten.
+ Capella Lodge tel (02) 9918 4355;www.lordhowe.comPinetrees tel (02) 9262 6585;www.pinetrees.com.au
+ QantasLink tel: 13 13 13.
+ Other infowww.tourism.nsw.gov.au

Grand Prix getaway

Phillip Island, Vic
[Photograph courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Park]
Getting there A 90-minute drive from Melbourne or a half-hour ferry ride from Stony Point, Mornington Peninsula.
Each September, thousands of rev-heads make an annual pilgrimage to Phillip Island for the Australian Motorbike Grand Prix. They're not the only visitors during this month: a million mutton birds reel in from over the Great Southern Ocean to nest. Goodness knows what the permanent residents — the shy little penguins — make of all the blow-ins, but after the excited spectators and roaring motorbikes of the Grand Prix return to the mainland, it doesn't take long for the whistling wind and cawing gulls to rule the airwaves once again.
A weather-beaten place, Phillip Island looks at home in the Bass Strait, but it wouldn't look out of place in Scotland. An invigorating destination with windswept surf beaches and tidal mudflats, this 36km long island is often subject to weather known as the four-seasons-in-one-day variety. And yet, when the wind drops and the sun shines, as it often does in summer, it can be the perfect place for an old-fashioned beach holiday.
Cowes, also known as the "island's capital", has the traditional offerings of a typical seaside town — fish and chip shops with lifebuoys and nets on the walls; ice-cream parlours and souvenir shops; an historic pub, called the Isle of White; and a boutique retreat, Glen Isla House, just 100 metres from a sandy beach. Nestled in secluded gardens with 100-year-old oak trees, this historic homestead (circa 1870) offers comfortable bedrooms, log fires, a spa bath, hearty breakfasts and gourmet dinners. It's Phillip Island's only 5-star hostelry and perfect for those who like a taste of the good life. Alternatively, there is a motor inn, caravan park and holiday units for those looking for something cheaper.
Some Melburnians prefer Phillip Island during the quieter winter months, when it becomes the perfect place to escape the city crowds and enjoy long walks on windswept beaches and cosy evenings by a roaring log fire.
Lowdown Snuggle up close in winter and seaside adventures in summer.
+ Glen Isla House tel (03) 5952 1882;www.glenisla.com
+ Other infowww.visitvictoria.com

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