Go for the ultimate natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, but stay for these other irresistible stops.
NEW SOUTH WALES
Lord Howe Island is a tiny dot in the Tasman Sea, roughly a third of the way between Australia and New Zealand. Look for massive basalt mountains that rise straight up out of the ocean, with craggy cliffs covered with greenery for a definite South Pacific feel. The hiking is tremendous and often quite strenuous. You also can explore dramatic cliffs with whirling seabirds that rise on furious currents of air. Take a boat out to see Ball’s Pyramid, a 6.4-million-year-old shard of razor-sharp rock that rises straight out of the ocean.
Fast-flowing, towering waterfalls and rich, red rock canyons that look like northern Arizona or southern Utah make up Litchfield National Park. Located a short drive south of the capital of Darwin, Litchfield features lush watering holes where you can take a dip and admire ribbons of water tumbling over cliffs lined with deep green trees and orange-red rock. The park offers a series of great hikes that take you through glorious woodlands and past creeks and on to lovely pools and waterfalls.
Take a breathtaking mountain hike surrounded by peaks of pink granite, combined with one of Australia’s prettiest white-sand beaches, in Freycinet National Park. Freycinet offers some of Tasmania’s most rewarding hikes, with trails for just about every ability. The short trek to the Wineglass Bay lookout isn’t an easy one, but the views are well worth the effort.
The Whitsundays are some of the most beautiful islands on the planet, with swirling, white sand and waves of blue-green water that swirl around into wavy patterns that mesmerize visitors. The islands (there are 74 of them, all in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef) are great for walking and exploring. You’ll find lonely, deserted beaches and some of Australia’s oldest archaeological sites. But the best way to appreciate the majesty of the blue bays and brilliant white sandbars is by plane.
The Bungle Bungles (also known as Purnululu) not only have an awesome name, but they’re one of the most remarkable features on the continent: massive rocks with black and orange stripes that rise like giant knobs from the surrounding outback in the far northwestern part of the state. Indigenous peoples have lived here for centuries, but hardly any non-indigenous folks knew about the region until the 1980s. There are wonderful walks to see hidden gorges and pools. It’s open only in the dry season, usually April to November.
The Twelve Apostles is a magnificent rock formation found on the Great Ocean Road that has been pummelled by rain, wind, and furious ocean waves for millions of years. The constant attack has worn away sections of the limestone cliffs, leaving towering rock formations offshore that march along the coast in a dramatic golden fashion.
The Flinders Ranges are just a few hours’ drive north of Adelaide. You’ll find towering rock walls with wide bands of pale white and ochre-colored rocks that positively glow in the light of sunrise and sunset, as well as spectacular gorges carved out over 800 million years. You’ll also get to experience indigenous culture that dates back 45,000 years. A scenic flight is a great way to see the area, or try a four-wheel-drive tour to experience the terrain on an up-close basis.