Published 3/29/18. Updated 3/30/21.
Ever since I was in my early teens, visiting Australia was an obsession. I’ve just always been fascinated by it. Kangaroos, the Outback, Crocodile Dundee, and Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, all captivated my interest.
In my junior year of high school, I applied to be a foreign exchange student there. But fortunately, I didn’t get chosen, because the idea of being away from my family for a year scared me to death. The interviewer for the process probably picked up on that.
Later, I made plans with a friend to take a trip there, but it didn’t end up working out. I was disappointed but moved on with life. I never lost the burning desire for visiting Australia, however.
A long-held dream becomes reality!
Fast forward many years, to 2015. A fortuitous, more likely, providential, series of events lead to my husband Mike and I having the opportunity to fulfill the long-held dream to go there! (Mike had always wanted to go as well.) The occasion, not that we needed one, was for our fifth wedding anniversary.
Our jobs had never given us the luxury of planning vacations in advance, and this trip too came to fruition with a startling suddenness that prevented us from planning out a detailed itinerary before we left. While this tactic can often lead to a vacation that leaves much to be desired, it worked very well for us, by God’s grace.
We knew we could take a few weeks off work, we had some money saved for a vacation, and we were armed with buddy passes from my dear brother, a Delta airlines employee. All we knew was we wanted to go as far away as we could with the money and time available to us. We settled on Australia no more than five days before our scheduled departure.
Before our departure, life was crazy for us at home and work, leaving little time to plan like I would have preferred. We each spent a handful of hours doing online research the week before and poured through a tourism book I had purchased. Since Australia is such an enormous country, the hardest part was figuring out which section we should focus on, knowing that our time would allow us a fraction of what we wanted to see.
Wheels up! Visiting Australia for reals.
The day came for our trip, and off we went.
Crossing the international date line eats up a day of travel on the way, so our Monday night departure put us in Sydney on Wednesday morning. We stumbled out of the airport at 7 am with no Australian cash, no lodging booked, and only a loose idea of how we were going to spend the next week and a half.
I should add, that for the first couple of days, nay, the whole trip, we repeatedly looked at each other in sheer delight and astonishment – “We are in AUSTRALIA!!! I can’t believe it!!!” It was a dream come true, and we were determined to make every minute count.
Planning on the fly – not my typical style
After figuring out the public train system, we ended up in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney, where we found a reasonably priced shared hostel room with two sets of bunk beds. I was hoping we’d have it to ourselves, but we ended up getting bunkmates in the form of a couple from Sweden who has just spent the last few months traveling through the area we were planning to go. They ended up being fun to talk to and a wealth of knowledge about what to do. Score.
Navigating Sydney, Australia on foot
We set out on foot through the stunning Royal Botanical Gardens, making our way to the spectacular Sydney Opera House. We giggled at the solid wall of tourists snapping pictures and selfies left and right, and we giggled at ourselves as we proceeded to do the same thing.
Settling in with refreshments at the outdoor Opera Bar and taking in the view of the Sydney Harbor, our jet-lag began to settle in like a thick fog. We trekked back to our hostel, found some pizza from a street vendor, and made our way to an internet cafe to do some research for our next few moves. This is where the decision about where to go loomed largely. So many options, so little time and money.
Choosing our priorities
Other than seeing the Opera House, my only “must” for the trip was snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, a subset of the bucket list item of going to Australia. It was late October when we went, and it was spring in Sydney, with pleasant temperatures and rain.
The loose itinerary I had devised before we left involved flying up to Cairns (a popular reef jump-off point), and then making our way down the east coast via rental car, seeing as much as we could with the time available. Though the reef can be accessed from much of the east coast, the warm tropical climates of the northeast corner of the country won out, so we booked tickets to Cairns departing the following evening.
More sightseeing around Sydney filled up the rest of the next day, including a visit to the Taronga Zoo. I also “needed” to see some kangaroos, since we’d come all that way.
An evening flight from Sydney to Cairns put us in late at night, and we eventually found the motel we’d booked for a few winks of sleep before our AM excursion out to the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is about a two-hour boat trip from shore, making tourist snorkeling boats big business in Cairns and surrounding towns. I’d booked us spots on a vessel, and I was beside myself with sheer joy and anticipation. We’d been rained on in Sydney, had left buckets of rain back home, and were now in a warm tropical paradise to fulfill a dream of 20 years.
It did not disappoint. Words won’t do it justice; these photos might only begin:
The continual delight of visiting Australia!
I mentioned that we were in disbelief that this trip was a reality. I should also add that I was unspeakably grateful for the opportunity, and could not stop thanking God for His kindness in allowing us to experience it. Throughout the trip, I would frequently mutter both to myself and aloud to Mike, “I think my head might explode from how amazing this is!!!”
We’d now been in Australia for three days and had six days before returning to Sydney to catch a flight home. As per the plan, we rented a car and headed south for our grand, unknown adventure. We had a loose idea of places we wanted to see, and 1000 miles to drive. It was go time!
Tourist secret: ask the locals for recommendations
Mike developed a great habit of chatting with locals to find out the best places to go in each region we visited. Only a few hours into our road trip (right-hand driver on the left side of the road, for the first time ever), we saw signs for Mission Beach, a place a guy in a coffee shop had recommended to Mike that morning. Though we knew nothing about it, we thought, “what the hey, we should at least stop and check it out; maybe grab some lunch and sit on the beach.”
When I saw that beach, the sensation of my head wanting to explode from delight got amped up considerably. It was unbelievably beautiful, like a Corona commercial come to life.
We found a cafe a few blocks from the beach and munched some fish tacos, then headed to the majestic light blue water for some swimming. Confession: we didn’t wait 30 minutes after eating.
The water was buoyant and peaceful. Note: the coastline along the reef expanse doesn’t have huge waves, since they get broken over the reef, miles out from the shore. The result is gentle, swimmable waves. I floated on my back and again, wondered if my head would explode.
The only thing that minimized the perfection was a persistent itchy feeling. Mike noticed it too. We later found out that it was a thing called “sea lice.” Somewhat unsettling to learn in retrospect that you were being nibbled on by invisible lice, but it just added some character to the experience.
Since we didn’t have any lodging lined up, we stopped at a local tourism center to get some ideas on places to see and stay nearby. That turned out to be a good move, because not only were we hesitant to leave such a magical beach town, we learned that the coastal highway veered inland just out of town, and headed into some less exotic landscape for the next few hundred miles. I would have known that if I’d taken the time to do proper vacation research; something I rectified for our later trip to New Zealand in 2019.
As if we hadn’t already hit the awesomeness jackpot, it continued as the lady at the visitor center found us the last room available in a resort on the beach, that was within our budget. Our private cabin was only 100 yards from the water, so we decided to brave the sea lice once again for another magical dip in the sea.
The amazingness continues with Mission Beach nightlife
That night, we ventured back into the village and found an open-air restaurant playing good music and serving fabulous food and drinks. I repeatedly shook my head in disbelief at how God had kindly allowed our trip to go flawlessly thus far, and basked in the wonder, knowing that the most perfect beach from earlier that day was only a few hundred feet away. It felt like being in a movie about paradise.
The next day was a long one of driving along the coastal highway to get to our next destination of Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.
Something Australia does well is, it includes pictures on roadside signs pointing to tourist stops, giving you a visual that makes you want to take a side trip on many of them. There were multiple things we wanted to see, but we had to keep going to make Airlie Beach by nightfall. We did make time for one — Wallaman Falls, an 879-foot single drop waterfall. It was well worth it. (For comparison for my Pacific Northwest friends: Multnomah Falls is 620 feet and contains two drops.)
Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
Back on the highway, we stopped at a McDonalds for wifi while Mike looked for lodging in Airlie Beach, and I booked us a day cruise out to one of the islands in the Whitsundays. Mike found us a room at a house with multiple bedrooms that had been converted to an inn for travelers. It was after dark when we hit town, and the place was high atop a steep hill and proved to be very difficult to find in the dark.
When we finally found it, it turned out to be quite a bit nicer than we were expecting, especially for the price. Though it was disappointing to not be able to see the beach due to darkness, my research on the town before we left had me pretty hyped for the views the morning would reveal. I stood on the street high above the town, heard music spilling out from nightclubs on the main drag below, and once again could scarcely contain my gratitude and excitement.
The next morning, the trek up the steep hill, pushing our rented Toyota Corolla to the limits proved to be well worth it as we drank in a breathtaking view of the Coral Sea from one of the balconies at our host’s home. We could have stayed there all day it was so lovely, but we had a boat to catch!
We made our way to the docks, climbed aboard our Cruise Whitsundays vessel, and were met with yet another jaw-dropping vista as we cruised through the most unspeakably beautiful turquoise water. I couldn’t stop staring at it.
The boat made its way through a few different tropical island ports to pick up and drop off passengers, including Hamilton Island, which is among the most famous of them. Fun fact: we later learned that Taylor Swift had taken her entire crew on a vacation there just days after we had been there! Mike and I made a pact we’d make it back to that island sometime.
Our destination was Whitehaven Beach, a stunning, remote, seven-mile stretch of white sand on Whitsunday Island, one of the few islands in the chain where no commerce was allowed. Our scheduled stop there was a mere 90 minutes; not nearly long enough.
Watch out for deadly jellyfish!
Unbeknownst to us, we happened to be cruising through the country only 1-2 weeks before “jellyfish season” which begins the first of November as the weather turns warmer. Terrifying, deadly creatures like the box jellyfish can issue a sting that will do anything from ruin your vacation with a hospital stay to perhaps end your life. Though we were just ahead of jellyfish season, the announcer on the boat warned that sting proof suits were available (they look like full-length wetsuits) and were recommended just in case.
I declined to wear one, preferring to enjoy the majestic tropical turquoise water without it. The warning from the announcer did leave me paranoid enough to continually scan the water as I was swimming, thus taking away the relaxing sensation I had felt a few days earlier at Mission Beach. Apart from that, however, Whitehaven Beach proved to be even more magical, if that is possible.
Every amazing trip has a less exciting part
After our stay in Airlie Beach, it was time to really put some miles in to make it down the coast on schedule. We’d figured we’d only make it as far as Brisbane, then catch a plane to Sydney where our buddy passes would take us back to Portland.
The next few days were a straight road trip. The tropics of Queensland were behind us, the scenery before us just average, with occasional views of the ocean. But it was still fascinating to be driving through AUSTRALIA!
One of two final notable stops on our trip involved the beautiful, meticulously landscaped Australia Zoo, founded by the late Steve Irwin & family. Khaki-clad Aussies with fabulous accents showed us all the wonders of kangaroos, koalas, crocodiles, and much more. This was the Disneyland of zoos, and it was far better than the one we’d visited in Sydney.
As a last tourist stop, we visited Noosa Beach, which was heralded by several Aussies we’d met as the place to go to see Australian celebrities. Several of the local cafes had all their chairs positioned facing the main drag for celebrity watching. The town reminded me of an Australian Beverly Hills, with expensive boutiques, elegant restaurants, and a general air of fanciness.
After Noosa, it was time to head to the Brisbane Airport to catch our Sydney flight. It was sad to see our fabulous vacation coming to an end, but we’d had more fun than we could have ever imagined and made memories we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.
Have you ever visited Australia? Which parts? I’d love to hear about your adventures! If you plan to visit Australia, but haven’t yet, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, if I can!
Thanks for reading!