You should definitely visit Australia in your lifetime, particularly if you snag a sub-$750 flight and/or have friends/family living down there. Why? Australia is full of amazing natural beauty and people are universally friendly. Melbourne is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited. Port Douglas is a sublime beach town near the Great Barrier Reef. Even with the horrible and tragic bushfires throughout much of the country, there’s currently no advisory not to visit.
Here’s my 3000+ word recap of the two plus weeks we spent Down Under in late August/early September in Melbourne, Far North Queensland (Port Douglas, the Great Barrier Reef, and Cairns), and Sydney.
Bars (often called “hotels” but without places to stay, there’s a historic reason that I forgot) are plentiful around the country but the laws differ dramatically so the scene can be different. In Melbourne, like New Orleans, there is no last call so bars can be open 24/7. Most, of course, don’t, but there are plenty of spots open until 4a or later. In the other areas we visited, it was a different story. In Queensland, bars must close at 2a (or in certain downtown areas, 3a); the 3a closing is enforced in downtown areas in Sydney (except for small bars). Both areas prohibit shots, shooters, and other “rapid intoxication drinks” after midnight. Sydney’s downtown has a further restriction-something called a “lockout law” where last entry to a bar is 1:30a though people inside can stay until closing time. These laws have reportedly decimated the Adams Morgan-like areas of town and turned Sydney into a less debaucherous place but were prompted in 2014 from several one-punch knockouts that killed multiple young adults. The damage has been bad that the provincial government recently repealed these laws and things are returning back to normal starting January 14th, 2020 (3:30a closing, no lockout times and no ban on shots).
Like U.S. and Canada (but unlike most places elsewhere in the world I’ve visited), bars routinely check IDs to make sure folks are of legal drinking age (18+ in Australia), and there generally seemed to be more of the puritanical influence on liquor laws like they have in U.S.. Bars also often had gambling facilities inside, even nicer non-divey spots, coupled with large signs warning people of the ills of gambling.
Drinks-wise, there was plentiful Australian beer on draft everywhere (lots of pale ales and IPAs though ABV was often in 5-6% range); no, I did not see a single Foster’s (Australian for beer my ass). Beer typically came in 3 sizes: 10 oz (pot in Melbourne, middy elsewhere), 15 oz (schooner, mostly only found in Sydney), and 20 oz (pint). In Melbourne I tried to usually order a pot but apparently I pronounced it like they say “pint” so I got a bigger beer than expected frequently. Wine was quite good (more on that later) and unlike the trend in the U.S., usually around the same price as beer ($5-6 USD). Because liquor in cocktails is carefully measured, the cocktails were generally pretty weak and the ones comparable to U.S. in strength were very expensive relative to rest of menu ($15 or so). The one exception- Australians LOVE Espresso Martinis; every bar seemingly featured them (sometimes on draft) and advertised their distinctive nature.
Service was always friendly even if a lot of spots didn’t have seats at the bar (I noticed this in the U.K. as well) which I’m okay with. Like most of the rest of the world, you can’t really start a tab with a credit card-if you pay with card, you pay each drink. I didn’t see much tipping in bars (aside leaving some smaller coins if paying in cash), though nicer sit-down restaurants seemed to expect you to tip 10%.
If you go, make sure your credit card allows you to tap to pay (most of the Chase cards with no foreign fees have this feature) as it made paying for stuff so much easier and quicker. Many spots charged 1% or so using your credit card, sometimes for any amount but usually if you didn’t meet the minimum.
In Sydney, slick fast casual spots exceeding what you might see in DC or LA proliferated; lots of Asian food in particular. Mexican food seemed very popular despite being very few Mexicans (or other Latin Americans) around, though it is reportedly very terrible. In all, “Australian” food wasn’t that great with a few exceptions (there is great fish, like the ubiquitous barrumundi in many places)-not incredibly well-seasoned. The Asian cuisine (Vietnamese-they love banh mi’s; Japanese, Chinese, Thai) was uniformly excellent. Mrs. Barred ate Asian food essentially dinner every night for last 10 days.
After about a full day in transit (losing Wednesday in the process), we arrived at Melbourne’s international airport on a bright but crisp late August morning. From there, we took a $40 Uber (there is a rapid bus available but for two people it’s about the same price to Uber directly) to the Hotel Windsor, one of Australia’s grand old hotels (just $100/night on Priceline). We spent 4 great days in Melbourne, one of our favorite cities ever, enjoying the combination of Victorian elegance, modern architecture, walkable center, and a chill vibe.
Sights included walking (or taking the tram-which is free downtown-and has very short headways and many routes) to the Queen Victoria Market (lots of food stands, and trinkets for sale), graffiti/mural-lined alleys (a.k.a. laneways), the cute little Chinatown, arcades/shopping malls like the Block & Royal Arcades (we were in town during Vogue Magazine’s Fashion Night Out which was a lot of fun), Ian Potter Centre (Australian art), Federation Square (wild looking gathering place), and the National Gallery of Victoria (nice free art museum). A very short Uber ride away as the Royal Botanic Gardens (long walk) which was quite peaceful and beautiful despite the crisp early spring day. Further away ($15 Uber/ 30 min each way) was the posh seaside neighborhood of St. Kilda (in Australia they seem to call every neighborhood outside the “CBD” a suburb, which kinda makes sense if you think of it). We went there solely to see the famous penguins of the pier there. Get there around dusk and you’ll see a ton of little 2-foot high penguins squawking around.
Food and drinks-wise, check out Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar (one of the first coffee shops in all of Australia; classic old-school service); Mo Vida (great tapas on a cool laneway; sit at the bar to get in quicker); Isan Soul (Thai street food; a bit trendy-there’s a tuk tuk inside the dining room, but great); Ichi Ni (izakaya in St Kilda); Lune (pricey, yet awesome croissants; long lines but worth it; the almond version is most popular but chocolate and regular is great); The Cricketer’s Bar (good HH in our hotel; mix of office workers and hotel guests); Imperial Hotel (fun rooftop bar which was decked out in Harry Potter-themed decor); Whisky Den (good booze, low-key); the scene on Flinders Lane in general; Ponyfish Island (spot on tiny island created by bridge support in the middle of the river recommended by follower), and The Rainbow Hotel (great neighborhood pub with large beer garden in the hipster neighborhood of Fitzroy just north of downtown).
While in Melbourne we also took a day trip to the beautiful wine region of the Yarra Valley. I’d recommend taking a van tour instead of lamely renting a car unless you’re staying overnight; we booked a trip with Yarra Valley Wine Tasting Tours (around $90-100). The itinerary was solid, picking us up from our hotel around 9a in a 13-person van, then hitting up four wineries (including the slick but beautiful Domaine Chandon with their world famous sparkling wine) which included a great lunch and a stop at a chocolate/ice cream spot. We got back around 5p, so it was long day but still worth it.
Far North Queensland
After spending 4 days in the relative cold of Melbourne, we headed back to the airport to travel on the budget carrier Jetstar (owned by Qantas)-definitely a typical budget airline (pay for carry-on bags over a very small weight limit-though they didn’t weigh our bags like apparently they could-with a dreadful anxiety-inducing queuing system. Still, our 3.5 hour flight to Cairns in the upper northeastern state of Queensland was cheap (around $100 even with the fees we shelled out). Cairns is considered the “Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef” and is the main city in the region known as “Far North Queensland” (also Tropical North Queensland).
Port Douglas & the Great Barrier Reef
But first, instead of heading to the city, we grabbed a 90 minute van shuttle straight from the airport (Excellence Coaches-booked online-roundtrip was about $70 each) to the wonderful, beautiful, chill beach town of Port Douglas (full-time population, around 3500 people). One of my favorite beach towns ever, Port Douglas sits a couple blocks from the famous Four Mile Beach, a deep strip of beautiful sand and calm waters fringed with palm trees (take a short hike up the hill at the northern end for some gorgeous views and a workout).
Most people who visit stay in the resorts a couple miles down the beach, but that’s not our scene. Instead we stayed at the Hibiscus Resort and Spa (hotel with 2 pools though we booked a condo in the resort using Airbnb for $135/night) just a block off the main drag, Macrossan Street. The latter is about a half mile long, lined with shops, nice restaurants, and chill bars. One of our favorite bars in Australia, Jimmy Rum’s Mixing Lounge (dark and classy, very different vibe than spots in rest of town), is located there. Cocktails run about $14/each but were well made and strong. Hemingway’s Brewery on the water in the marina was great as well. Other spots we had a drink included Hi Tide Cafe (overlooks beach and palm trees), b (perhaps most lively spot in town, they had cane toad races-google it), Rattle & Hum (standard pub), and The Court House Hotel (large two floor spot at end of strip). The Little Larder serves a popular breakfast/brunch/lunch, and I had my best avocado toast at Cafe Fresq. BYO Thai food at Star of Siam is solid.
The main reason we were in Queensland, however, was the Great Barrier Reef off the coast. To get there we took the most popular (and biggest boat) from Quicksilver Cruises Wavepiercer cruise ($180/each). This boat takes about 90 minutes to get to the reef, where we docked at a pontoon the company controls. A solid buffet lunch was served on the boat, and we proceeded to head out to the pontoon which included a cool underwater viewing platform, a literal submarine ride, and the highlight-a snorkel tour hosted by a marine biologist (which followed a presentation onboard on the cruise over). We stayed for a couple hours and enjoyed seeing the fish, coral (some dead, but mostly alive-everyone was very defensive about it), and the rest of the marine life. Definitely a memorable experience we’ll never forget.
After 3 nights in Port Douglas, we bid adieu and took the return leg of the shuttle to the Cairns Plaza Hotel ($72/night on Priceline) in the city of 150,000. Cairns was a bit more shabby-feeling that Port Douglas, but I at least enjoyed our two nights there (Mrs. Barred could have skipped it). Sights including the strolling along the Esplanade Boardwalk (not really a beach, and the shore itself isn’t that pleasant, but during low tide it’s really cool to be up close to unique Australian birds, like Aussie pelicans everywhere), swinging by the Esplanade Lagoon pool (massive public pool that has a little beach, seamlessly into the surroundings fed with saltwater from the harbor), and checking out the Cairns Night Markets (stalls selling random stuff and food-mostly Asian).
Many people disembark for the Reef here; we instead took a day trip to the Kurunda Rainforest nearby. We opted for a joint ticket, taking the scenic historic train in the morning (about 2 hours) and taking the gondola Skyrail Rainforest Cableway on the way back (15-30 minutes) ($70 +$15 for roundtrip transfer from hotel + recommended $35 Gold class which includes reserved seating, lots of beer/wine, great snacks). The village of Kurunda itself is worth a quick visit of an hour or two for some souvenir shopping. If you have limited time, I’d recommend taking the Skyrail both ways; the views hundreds of feet above the rainforest floor are spectacular, and the quick stops to walk around amongst the exhibits, trees and/or for waterfall views are a nice break.
Back in Cairns, we had drinks in many spots; there was quite a lively scene in town as we were there on the weekend.. On the north end of the strip, I’d recommend checking out bars at the upscale new Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort including the rooftop Rocco cocktail bar and the Paper Crane ground floor spot (great HH with tons of outdoor space. We also stopped by Flamingos Tiki Bar (lots of great tiki drinks in a cozy space), The Pier Bar (very lively spot on the pier), The Cotton Club, Three Wolves Cocktail Bar, and The Chambers (great espresso martini, where we met a Barred in DC follower and her friend), many of which have solid happy hours specials. I’d also recommend Bang & Grind for great espresso and breakfast.
From Cairns, we headed back south on Qantas, which was comparatively luxurious (both to US domestic airlines and to Jetstar) with a hot lunch, spacious seating, and plentiful entertainment options on a 3 hour flight. Be on the lookout for the views of the coral/reef as you fly over the Pacific Ocean. We landed, after a spectacular approach with a view of Sydney and the surroundings, at the Sydney Airport and grabbed an Uber (after walking about 15 minutes to the Uber pick-up lot). There is a $15 train (note with trains in Sydney you can pay with your phone which was great) that goes downtown directly from the airport but for two people it was best for us to take rideshare. We stayed in Chinatown at The Ultimo, a recently restored boutique hotel (less than $100/night on Hotwire). The spot was clean and had character but I’d recommend staying closer to the CBD. This may have contributed to our opinion that Sydney was overrated as a tourist, sprawling with not a spectacular nightlife. Of course still put it on your itinerary if you make it down under.
Sights-wise: I’d recommend starting out near the Queen Victoria Building (jam ful of shops and beautiful interior and exterior design-take a look at the hanging clocks), walking through the nearby outdoor pedestrianized Pitt Street Mall, and taking detour through Hyde Park on the way to Circular Quay harbor area. There, you’ll be next to the obligatory Sydney Opera House (recommend seeing a show, we saw a great performance of West Side Story), the Sydney Harbor Bridge (we did not do the pricey Bridge Climb but taking train to Misons Point and then walking back across the bridge was memorable), and the nearby The Rocks historic area (oldest part of Sydney).
Another walking self-guided tour would be starting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (free admission) and perusing the gallery (nothing memorable but still solid). From there, take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens (make sure you see the massive chia pet-like koala and the eel pond), on your way to Mrs Macquarie’s Point (and the rocks called the “Chair) with the best view to get your great photo of the Opera House and the bridge in the background (first photo in this article).
The other major attractions in Sydney are, of course, the beaches. Because we were there in mid September (late winter/early spring), the temperatures were in the 60s-low 70s and the wind was high, so we weren’t planning on laying in the sand, but they’re still worth checking out any time of year. I took the ferry from Circular Quay (about 20 minutes with great views of the harbour) to the Manly ferry stop, and then walked the 10 minutes down the pedestrianized The Corso to Manly Beach. The whole area is very relaxed and the beach is spectacular with the pine trees hugging the beach. After heading back to main part of Sydney, I took the train from Martin Place Station to Bondi Junction, then took an Uber to Bronte Beach, which feels very remote. Make sure you take a look at the Bronte Baths saltwater rock pool before taking the amazing 30-45 minute walk along the coast to the world-famous Bondi Beach. You’ll get obligatory shots of the Bondi Icebergs Pool (fed by the ocean water that crashes into the pool) before surveying the massive scene of sand and fun. A good spot to have a drink and a bite is The Bucket List which is right on the beach.
For food, I’d recommend Japanese at Daruma or Kura Kura in Chinatown, the mainstay Chat Thai nearby, and love.fish for upscale but too pricey seafood in Darling Harbour development (sort of The Wharf of Sydney). My favorite bars were the massive The Bank in the charming suburb of Newtown (right off the train station 20 minutes from Circular Quay), the popular The Clock (another sprawling bar) in the yupster neighborhood of Surrey Hills (I’d recommend spending a lot of time here, easily walkable), Bitter Phew on Oxford Street (great sort of ramshackle beer bar), and the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel (one of the oldest pubs in Australia near The Rocks). Other spots we visited included Shady Pines Saloon (a kitschy-hipster U.S. Western-themed bar in Oxford area that gets good reviews), Big Poppa’s (a restaurant that turned its basement in to a dance club late night), The Argyle (if you want a dancey, mostly foreign student crowd on Sunday nights), the Surry HIlls/Central Station-area cocktail bar Button Bar, and after-work happy hour spots The Palace Hotel and The Great Southern Hotel (near/in Chinatown).
Featherdale and Blue Mountains
I also took a day trip from Sydney. Since I wanted to see some ‘roos and koalas, I took a 40 minute train to Blacktown then the 729 bus to the Featherdale Wildlife Park ($25). The sizeable spot is basically a massive petting zoo (I mean that in a good way) and is a good place to go if you haven’t seen anything in wild).
After a quick trip there, I then Ubered back to Blacktown and continued the train voyage to the famous Blue Mountains. I stopped at Leura Station to stroll around the charming but sleepy village of Leura. If you’re pressed for time, I would go straight to Katoomba (otherwise you can stop by for an hour and grab the next train). When getting off at Katoomba, you can take a bus but I sprung for a cheap Uber (same driver picked me up later) to Scenic World. This private attraction ($30 entry) is best enjoyed by going to Echo Point first (free) to get a great view of the famous Three Sisters rock formation, then taking the cliff walk to the Scenic Skyway gondola station. The gondola has a glass bottom (if you stand in the middle) and huge windows to view the mountains and valleys between suspended 300 yard above the ground. At the other side, take the Scenic Railway (at 52 degrees, it’s the steepest cable car incline in the world) down to the valley floor. There, walk around the Scenic Walkway to explore the fauna of the rainforest before taking another gondola, the Scenic Cableway (more like an oversized ski lift) back to the main Scenic World HQ. After Ubering back to Katoomba Train station, I took a train back to Sydney (around 2 hours, $10 roundtrip)
Is Australia my favorite country I’ve ever visited? No-it’s probably not even in the top 5 to be honest (but I’ve visited 25 of them outside US so maybe that’s not saying much) for both acceptable and dumb reasons. It’s a long way away. From the East Coast, it takes about 20-25 hours to get there and you essentially take red eye flights on both ends. Second, culturally it’s not all that different than what I’m used to here in the U.S. Usually when I travel the point is to experience something different. I was reminded of a warm-weather more outgoing Canada (with lots of Asian tourists). Every Uber we took would be basically a UberXL in the U.S. As I mentioned, the Australian food we had wasn’t amazing. Also, we definitely encountered some stares in Queensland area and awkward/offensive comments directed towards black people in a few places (“I love your complexion”), which obviously is not uncommon around the world (or even inside the U.S.) but still less than comfortable.. Like I said, earlier, it’s still definitely worth putting on your bucket list but just make sure you have open expectations.
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