I used to live in Sydney in the 1990s and absolutely loved my time there. My children have grown up hearing stories of big skies, wonderful scenery, sea and sunshine. It was hardly a surprise when my 16 year-old son Max declared his burning desire to go to Australia when we were deciding on a post-GCSE adventure.
I began planning this very special one-on-one experience well in advance, setting aside a month to show him Sydney and other Australian highlights. These included tropical far north Queensland, Uluru and Alice Springs in the Red Centre and a remote reef in Western Australia called Ningaloo. We left at the end of June: winter time in Sydney and dry season in the tropical north.
I’m writing about our trip in two parts – this post covers our first two weeks.
Week one: Sydney
We spent a full week exploring this beautiful city on Australia’s east coast, getting over our jetlag, catching up with friends and preparing for our adventure ahead. A week of nostalgia for me and a week of discovery for Max, exploring beaches and cliff walks, harbour cruises and whale-watching, galleries and gardens. Sydney has it all.
Opera House & Harbour
The impact of glimpsing Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House for the first time can never be underestimated.
It was the first thing Max wanted to do despite our long flight. It didn’t disappoint. As the train drew into Circular Quay he caught his breath as the glistening water appeared, revealing the Bridge, and then the sparkling white sails of the Opera House came into view. Our first day was spent enjoying the glorious harbour and the nearby Botanical Gardens. Winter is a great time to visit Sydney in my opinion. Mornings and evenings can be a little chilly but the days are warm – 20 degrees or so – and perfect for walking and exploring. And that is exactly how we spent our first week together.
An Opera House guided tour is a must and we loved learning about the history of the building, how it was built and the controversy surrounding it. Max was really taken with the architecture, both inside and outside, and our aboriginal guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We enjoyed the tour even more as we had evening tickets to an aboriginal dance performance by the Bangarra Dance company. I highly recommend the tour even if you think your teen doesn’t like culture. The Opera House is such an original building, everyone is sure to find some aspect of it to enjoy.
Taronga Zoo is another must-see. We visited during the week and there were no queues anywhere at all so you could get up close to the animals, many of which you won’t have seen anywhere else. The ferry ride over is a treat in itself and I love the views of the city from across the harbour.
I recommend at least 4 hours for the zoo visit and you can nip over to nearby Watson’s Bay afterwards for its famous fish and chips.
Bondi coastal walk
Another Sydney highlight is the Bondi coastal walk. Take the path down by the Bondi Icebergs Club and continue for as long as you feel like walking. It’s mostly boardwalks and pathways. You pass some of the city’s most beautiful beaches including Tamarama, Brönte, cosy Clovelly, and you can go as far as Coogee. Bondi to Coogee takes a leisurely one and a half hours (over five kilometres) and is well worth it as at this time of year you may see humpback whales not so far out to sea. Pop into Café Bazura in Coogee for a lovely meal overlooking the beach and beyond.
Our three-hour whale watching tour from Circular Quay was fabulous. The boat takes you out just beyond the ‘Heads’ (the entrance to the harbour). This is the best time of year to see migrating humpback whales. Max was utterly absorbed and couldn’t get over how close they were and how easy they were to see. An aside – If you suffer from seasickness, take medication before you depart as it can get a bit choppy out in open water.
Art Gallery of NSW
The Art Gallery of NSW just above the Botanical Gardens is a lovely spot with a good café. It has a section dedicated to aboriginal art as well as an array of other temporary and permanent exhibitions.
An easy day trip or an overnight stay are the Blue Mountains, about a two-hour train ride from Sydney. There are many walks you can do from here of varying lengths and difficulties. The scenery is spectacular and the eucalyptus trees really do give off a blue hue. It can be much colder than Sydney, especially at night, so pack your woollies and wear layers as it soon warms up when you’re walking during the day, even in the winter months.
Where to stay in Sydney
We stayed with friends near Central Station. If you’d like proximity to the beach, good areas to stay in Sydney are Bondi and Coogee. Alternatively, other areas would be Sydney CBD, Surrey Hills, Darling Harbour, Pyrmont, Chippendale, Paddington and The Rocks.
Tip – For travel on the city’s trains and buses get an Opal card that you can top up as necessary, rather like London’s Oyster card.
Week two: Tropical Queensland – Great Barrier Reef & Rainforest
The Great Barrier Reef was Max’s dream and I decided from past experience to base ourselves at Port Douglas rather than better-known Cairns. We flew from Sydney to Cairns where I hired a car and drove to Port Douglas.
Port Douglas is about an hour’s drive from Cairns, and is smaller, with a more relaxed vibe to it. Four-Mile beach is simply gorgeous for early morning and evening walks.
Where to stay in Port Douglas
Port Douglas has lots of resort type places, but by resort I mean they are normally self-contained units within a complex, which is very usual in Australia. Most have a pool and other dining areas. We stayed in Bay Villas Resort in Port Douglas and it was a decent sized unit, with our own kitchen, living area and bedroom and bathroom. Four-mile beach was just five minutes away, and everything in Port Douglas was close to hand.
Great Barrier Reef boat tour
It’s easy to access the reef from Port Douglas, and I used Wavelength Reef Cruises as I wanted a small boat with few people, and they specialise in small group snorkelling. Recommendations from Max on how to make the best of a boat tour of the reef include: ‘Listen to the crew about how to find fish and other animals. It really helps. Bring spare clothes as it can get wet and cold. Don’t eat too much and take travel sick pills. Bring an underwater camera to capture videos and pictures of the amazing fish.’ I agree with all of the above. Interestingly the crew were all qualified young marine biologists and Wavelength’s policy is to employ only marine biologists. They are happy to share their knowledge and answer any questions.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Snorkelling is more tiring than you think, so I’d recommend doing something more relaxing the day after a reef tour. We went on the Kuranda Scenic Railway tour. Tours pick up from your accommodation and drop you back at the end of the day.
The tourist railway snakes its way up through spectacular tropical scenery and small towns before it reaches the rainforest village of Kuranda. The train is a beautiful 19th century locomotive with wooden carriages and leather seats. It stops at Barron Falls lookout and other waterfalls along the way. There is a commentary on the train about the history of the railway construction (it began in 1886 at great cost to human life) and it’s really interesting and informative.
Max says, ‘Make sure you sit by the window for the view if you can and be quick with photos. Go to the original food market and try some food from around the world. There are some really delicious things to try.’
At 328m above sea-level, the rainforest village itself is a curious mixture of arts and crafts market stalls, food from around the world, animal sanctuaries and more. You take the Skyrail pod back down from Kurunda, travelling high above the rainforest. It’s a beautiful descent.
Before heading up to the Daintree Rainforest, Max and I did one more half-day tour to the Low Isles. The Low Isles are tiny: one of them is all mangroves and not walkable; the other is so small that you can walk around it in 15 minutes. You can snorkel from there as you are in the reef already, so it’s very easy and relaxing. Again, a qualified marine biologist can show you where the turtles are and where you can find a reef shark hidden under a rock, as well as other treats you may otherwise miss. Max says: ‘Spend as much time in the water as you can as the time goes fast, but make sure you see the island too, as there is a lighthouse and an interesting story too. Spot the sharks from out of the water first. They won’t hurt you. The snorkelling was so fun’.
Most people we met spent only a day visiting the Daintree Rainforest. I highly recommend staying up there and taking your time if you can. It’s the oldest rainforest on the planet and is thought to be 180 million years old. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage listed site like the Great Barrier Reef. This is the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet. The Daintree covers about 1200 square kilometres and is full of streams, exotic plants, brightly coloured animals and birds, waterfalls and white sandy beaches.
Lovely Mossman Gorge is worth a morning in itself. It’s a walk-through part of the rainforest, with waterfalls and waterholes as well as an interactive visitor centre. We drove in a hire car to the Daintree Rainforest from Port Douglas through sugar cane plantations. The drive took about an hour, and we stayed at the Daintree Eco Lodge.
Daintree Eco Lodge
This was a gorgeous and peaceful spot and we slept in a ‘bayan’ – a luxury room high up and immersed in the canopy. At night you can hear the patter of raindrops, the croak of frogs and other rainforest sounds. Max also had the ‘best meal of his life’ here at the Julaymba Restaurant at the lodge. The lamb was so tender that it just melted in your mouth.
The river cruises to spot crocodiles, birds and other delights are great. You’ll definitely see crocs of varying shapes and sizes. We even saw a snake in the trees. I also recommend doing a guided tour into the forest. We could have walked through the paths ourselves, but our guide was a font of knowledge, bending down to show us details and explaining so many things we would have missed had we gone alone. He took us to hidden beaches and lookouts including Cape Tribulation which isn’t always easy to access. You can book these tours online or from the lodge. Max loved this day and we just gazed in wonder at the lush beauty of these beaches of which there are so many along this Queensland coastline.
One more super fun activity we did was ‘jungle-surfing’ – a ziplining adventure through the canopy with gorgeous views of the Barrier Reef through the trees. Any age can do this, from tots to oldies and it’s great fun.
From Daintree we drove back to Cairns and dropped off the hire car there before our flight to Uluru. We had to spend a night in Cairns as the flight was very early and you do not want to be driving from the Daintree back to Cairns at night as it is very hazardous, with many curves and bends. It is a beautiful scenic drive to do, but do it in the daytime.
We travelled to Australia from the UK with Qantas from Heathrow to Sydney, with a quick stopover in Singapore. This took about 23-24 hours in total. Our internal flights were also with Qantas. Our trip was organised with the help of Travel Counsellor, Jenny Igoe.
More on Australia
Look out for my next post about our trip, when I’ll share our experiences of exploring Uluru and Alice Springs in the Red Centre, and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.
Disclosure: There is nothing to disclose for this trip – it was a holiday, and Lorenza and Max were not hosted anywhere. All words, opinions and images are those of Lorenza and Max. This post contains some affiliate links, which means that if you clicked through and bought something we would receive a small commission, at no cost to you.