With international travel on the backburner, now is the perfect time to explore your own backyard. ANGELA SAURINE reveals amazing hidden gems in each state and territory of Australia for your next family holiday
They may be places you have never heard of, or maybe they’ve been on your radar for a while, but you haven’t got around to visiting yet. It might be your favourite local hangout that most outsiders don’t even know exists. Whatever the case, Australia abounds with incredible places to be discovered. With international travel restrictions in place, it’s a great opportunity to tick some of them off your list. Whether it’s in your own state or territory, just across the border or on the other side of the country, here are some ideas for your next family holiday Down Under.
1. Double Island Point, Noosa North Shore
Pack a picnic lunch and a cricket bat for a day trip from Noosa to this idyllic spot in the Great Sandy National Park, where you will find clear blue water, resident dolphins and an historic lighthouse. Despite its name, Double Island Point isn’t actually an island but a long sand spit, with a pair of large sand dunes that appear, from the distance, to be separated by the sea. The illusion of two islands prompted Captain Cook to name the sand spit Double Island Point when he passed by in 1770. Double Island Point can be reached two to three hours, either side of low tide, from Rainbow Beach or Noosa along the Great Beach Drive. Before you leave, you will need to purchase a beach-driving permit online from Queensland Parks, and check the tide times carefully because the beach isn’t accessible at high tide. Or just book a tour with Great Beach Drive 4WD Tours or Epic Ocean Adventures.
2. Lark Quarry
See the fossilised footprints of the only known dinosaur stampede on the planet at Lark Quarry Conservation Park, around 110km from Winton in Queensland’s outback. On the day the drama unfolded, 95 million years ago, herds of small two-legged dinosaurs came to drink at a lake. There were at least 150 dinosaurs of two different kinds – carnivorous coelurosaurs about the size of chickens, and slightly bigger plant-eating ornithopods, some of them as big as emus. A huge meat-eating theropod, smaller than a Tyrannosaurus, began to stalk them, then turned and charged. The stampeding herd of smaller dinosaurs left a chaotic mass of footprints in the mud as they ran to escape. There are more than 3,300 footprints scattered over the rock face, and you can watch animated recreations of the incident.
3. Agnes Water
It lies at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, but Agnes Water has somehow largely managed to stay under the tourist radar. With its gorgeous empty beaches, the small town between Gladstone and Bundaberg is the perfect spot for a quiet seaside getaway. Be sure to visit neighbouring 1770, where Captain Cook first landed in Queensland, for a history lesson. From there, it’s just a 90-minute boat ride to the undeveloped Lady Musgrave Island. There’s also a butterfly walk and a kangaroo sanctuary, while Deepwater National Park, 15km south of Agnes Water, is the second largest nesting site in Australia for loggerhead turtles.
4. Conondale National Park, Sunshine Coast hinterland
Pitch a tent at the campsite beside the pretty Booloumba Creek, and set off on hikes through the rainforest to discover waterfalls and wildlife in this national park, around 130km north of Brisbane and 60km west of Maroochydore. Don’t miss the Strangler Cairn sculpture, which was made by British artist Andy Goldsworthy, in the middle of the park. It is composed of granite blocks shaped together with a strangler fig planted in the top.
Around 40 minutes’ drive north of the popular tourist town of Airlie Beach, Bowen offers an alternative Whitsundays base. It has eight beaches, and the inner reef is just metres from many of Bowen’s bays. At low tide you can walk towards the North Head Lighthouse, looking out for giant red starfish, feather stars and green sea turtles. There’s also a free water park with slides and a huge water bucket, and a market is held every Sunday.
6. Capertee Valley, NSW
Who knew the world’s second-largest canyon, after the Grand Canyon in the US of course, is just a few hours’ drive from Sydney? Sandstone cliffs dominate the escarpment of the Capertee Valley, with the gigantic monolith, Pantoney’s Crown, rising in the middle. Go bushwalking, camping, 4WDing or use the money you’ve saved on overseas flights to splash out on a scenic helicopter flight, which is by far the best way to appreciate its grandeur.
7. Yarrangobilly Caves Thermal Pool, NSW
Around 100km from Cooma, in the northern part of Kosciuszko National Park, this thermal pool is a beautiful place to take a dip. Permanently heated to 27C by a natural spring, in winter it’s magical to float in the warmth, watching the steam rise from the surface of the water, with snow blanketing the ground around you. The main pool flows over into a children’s wading pool, and there’s also a picnic area and change rooms. Stay at the historic Caves House, and explore the impressive limestone formations on a guided tour while you’re there.
8. The Drip Gorge, NSW
Pack a picnic and head off on a beautiful bushwalk to The Drip Gorge, around 40 minutes’ drive north of Mudgee, in the Central West, where clear spring water trickles from the magnificent towering sandstone walls above. Afterwards, have a swim in the Goulburn River and stop off at Hands on the Rock, an important Aboriginal rock art site at Ulan, a couple of kilometres north.
9. Mungo National Park, NSW
If there’s one place in NSW that’s set to become a new hotspot, it’s this out-of-this-world national park, which lies nearly 900km west of Sydney and 400km south of Broken Hill. It may have seemed too far to travel before the pandemic, but now this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, close to the South Australian and Victorian borders, has become an attractive destination. The highlight of the park is, without doubt, the Walls of China, where erosion has sculpted sand and clay into fragile, yet imposing, formations.
10. Little Blowhole, Kiama
Kiama’s famous blowhole on the South Coast is the biggest in the world, but the lesser-visited Little Kiama Blowhole is arguably more consistent. While it can be a little hard to find, it is well worth the effort, as the spray reaches remarkable heights. It’s located just off Tingira Cres, 3km south of town. From there, you can walk south around the headland to Easts Beach.
11. Squeaky Beach, Wilsons Promontory National Park
Named after the rounded grains of quartz that make a squeaking sound when you walk, this stunning beach is lapped by turquoise water. Make your way through coastal scrub from the car park and jump over the little stream as you reach the sand to discover views of distant islands and granite-studded headlands. The kids will love exploring the maze of passages created by the large boulders at the northern end of the beach.
12. Raymond Island, Gippsland Lakes
This little island, which can be reached by ferry from Paynesville, offers some of the best koala spotting opportunities in the country. The clearly marked path along the Koala Trail leads you among the gumtrees. You can walk the trail in 20 minutes, and follow up with a scenic picnic lunch.
13. Bunurong Coastal Drive, Inverloch
The Great Ocean Rd may get all the attention, but the Bunurong Coastal Dr is also filled with delights. Dinosaur fossils, rock pools and caves complement the scenic views of rugged sandstone cliffs, rocky headlands and sandy coves. Covering 14km from Cape Paterson to Inverloch, this drive is rich in beauty and history, The Caves and Flat Rocks area, close to Inverloch, is home to the Dinosaur Dreaming Fossil Site. The first dinosaur bone to be discovered in Australia, the ‘Cape Paterson Claw’, was found in this area in 1903. Thousands of bones, teeth and footprints from small dinosaurs have since been discovered, and wannabe paleontologists can go fossicking here at low tide.
14. Tarra Bulga National Park, Gippsland
With its lush gullies, giant mountain ash trees and tree ferns, Tarra Bulga National Park is one of only four major areas of cool temperate rainforest in Victoria. Have lunch at the Tarra Bulga Picnic area or the Tarra Valley picnic area, which are set amongst the giant trees and shady fronds of tree ferns, before setting off on one of the adjoining walking tracks. Meander through the forest, head south to Tarra Falls, or take the Fern Gully Nature Walk, which includes a suspension bridge. If you’re lucky, you may see a lyrebird scratching the forest floor looking for food, or catch a glimpse of a wombat, swamp wallaby or a platypus. While camping is not permitted within the national park, Tarra Valley offers a range of accommodation, including a guesthouse and tearooms, country houses, a Swiss-style chalet and a holiday park with cabins.
15. Pink Lakes, Murray Sunset National Park
Head to the northwest corner of Victoria to see the vivid colours of the Pink Lakes, which are given their hue by the red algae that grows in them. The water in the four lakes is crystal clear, with beds made up of solid salt. Keep an eye out for kangaroos, wallabies, emus and echidnas as you wander the walking trails, including the Lake Becking Nature Walk, the Kline Nature Walk and the Lake Hardy Nature Walk. Pitch your tent at campgrounds at Lake Crosbie or Lake Becking, cycle along Pioneer Drive, or visit in springtime to see thousands of wildflowers in bloom.
16. Liffey Falls, Liffey Falls State Reserve
Liffey Falls is the main attraction of this beautiful reserve, which is dotted with cascades, towering trees and wildlife. A 30-minute drive from Deloraine, near Launceston, the reserve can be found within cool temperate rainforest and is part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area. There are four sets of falls along the 45-minute return walk from the picnic ground downhill to the majestic Victoria Falls (commonly referred to as Liffey Falls), all of which can be viewed from sturdy observation decks. The area’s geological history is revealed in the river, where water has exposed the sandstone steps of the waterfall. Look out for tiny marine fossils among the river stones.
17. Friendly Beaches Reserve
The dirt road that leads to the picturesque Friendly Beaches Reserve, just next to the more famous Freycinet National Park, can be found 26km north of the town of Coles Bay on Tasmania’s east coast. Expect to find crystal clear water, white sand beaches and soaring granite lookouts.
18. Gordon River, Strahan
Take a cruise along the tranquil Gordon River, a 172km-long waterway that flows through the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area before entering Macquarie Harbour. Cruise boats from Strahan explore several kilometres of the river’s wide, calm lower reaches, offering reflections of the surrounding riverside rainforest. Disembark at Heritage Landing and follow a short boardwalk track to see Huon pines that are several thousand years old.
19. Leven Canyon
Witness the power of nature at this canyon, formed by the flowing Leven River, near Ulverstone. Two lookouts, Cruickshanks and Edge, can be accessed on the 1.2km circuit track. Along the ferny trail you can see smaller delights, including colourful fungi and wildlife. Enjoy a picnic or barbecue while you are there. Other tracks include Forest Stairs, Fern Walk and Canyon Floor Walk.
20. Rathmore Farm
Experience an authentic taste of country Tasmania life at this historic sheep property in the state’s Central Highlands. Stay in the shearer’s quarters or the heritage homestead on the property, which was settled in 1878 and offers the chance to see sheep, cows and ducks. You can row on the dam to spot platypus, take shearing shed tours, and enjoy dinner under the stars.
21. Lake Gairdner National Park
Explore the glistening white salt surface of Australia’s third largest salt lake, Lake Gairdner, 150km north west of Port Augusta. The lake has more than 200 islands, and the salt layer is almost one metre thick in parts. The park is also home to Lake Everard and Lake Harris. Camp under the stars and spot kangaroos, emus, wombats and goannas as you explore the park.
22. William Creek sand dunes
Halfway along the Oodnadatta Track lies the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ town of William Creek, best known for its authentic outback pub. Nearby you will also find windswept red sand dunes set against bright blue skies, and check out Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and the colourful Anna Creek Painted Hills while you’re there.
23. Umpherston Sinkhole
This magnificent sinkhole at Mt Gambier was created when the top chamber of a limestone cave collapsed. It was beautified by local farmer and politician, James Umpherston, in the late 1880s, and is now also known as The Sunken Garden, with hanging vines cascading over its sides and plants growing in the terraces on the garden floor. At dusk, the area comes alive with possums as they venture into the floodlit gardens to feed.
24. Kanyaka Waterhole, Flinders Ranges
This permanent, spring-fed waterhole in the Flinders Ranges lies beside a large quartzite rock formation known as Death Rock, so named because Aboriginal people are said to have brought loved ones there when they were dying. Along the walk to the waterhole you can also see the ruins of an old pioneering station.
25. Little Blue Lake
Take the plunge in this beautiful sinkhole, which lies in the Kanawinka volcanic area between two dormant volcanoes, Mount Schank and Mount Gambier. Around 11km west of the city, also named Mount Gambier, it is a popular spot for locals to swim and dive, although the waters are now more green than blue, thanks to algae.
26. Lonely Beach, East Arnhem Land
Two beautiful beaches meet at a rocky island at this spot near the homeland of Bawaka, around a 1.5-hour drive from Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land. The waters here are teeming with marine life, and the top of the dunes provides a great vantage point. Lonely Beach can be visited on the Lirrwi Tourism Bawaka day tour, a 4WD adventure that gives visitors an insight into Yolŋu homeland life, including traditional spear fishing and crab hunting.
27. Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park
One of Kakadu’s lesser-known attractions, Barramundi Gorge (also known as Maguk) is a pristine natural waterfall and plunge pool at the base of steep gorge walls. Spot the spangled drongos and rainbow pittas in the rainforest, swim with the black bream and marvel at the majestic endemic Anbinik trees along the rocky slopes. Located an hour’s drive south from Cooinda, Maguk can be accessed from a 14km 4WD track off the Kakadu Highway, followed by a 1km walk through monsoon forests, crossing Barramundi Creek.
28. Ellery Creek Big Hole, West MacDonnell National Park
Thousands of years of massive floods have carved out this waterhole, which is fed by the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and surrounded by tall red cliffs and the sandy Ellery Creek. Recognised as an internationally significant geological site, the permanent water made it a special meeting place for the Aranda people on the fish and honey ant dreaming trails. Take the 3km Dolomite walk to see the surrounding formations.
29. Redbank Gorge
This stunning gorge and chasm, around 160km west of Alice Springs at the base of Mt Sonder, is a refuge for many threatened plant and animal species. Take the 2km return walk from the car park along the creek bed to the gorge to swim in the cold, deep water of the near-permanent waterhole. Basic camping facilities are available at the Woodland and Ridgetop campgrounds.
30. Mount Conner
Uluru and Kata Tjuta may get all the glory, but there’s a third major attraction in the Red Centre that is arguably just as impressive as its more famous cousins. The 300m-high Mount Conner is a flat-topped, sandstone-capped sand and rock mountain around 100km east of Ayers Rock Resort. As it lies on the privately-owned Curtin Springs Station cattle property, it can only be accessed on a private tour with SEIT Outback Australia. Children must be at least six-years-old.
31. Dirk Hartog Island, Shark Bay
History, natural beauty and spectacular landscapes abound on this island in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shark Bay area. Look out for sharks, turtles, dolphins, whales and dugongs on the boat ride from Denham, ten hours’ drive north of Perth, or enjoy a scenic flight from nearby Monkey Mia. Once there, you can swim at secluded beaches, walk along the rugged coast, explore rock pools, see thundering blowholes, go fishing, and marvel at the brightly coloured Rose Lake. Visit on a day trip with Ocean Park Aquarium, or you can camp or stay at the rustic Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge.
32. Hellfire Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park
One of the most beautiful beaches you are ever likely to see, Hellfire Bay is a highlight of a visit to Cape Le Grand National Park in Western Australia’s south. The bay, around 45 minutes’ drive from Esperance, is a lovely place to have a picnic or to swim when conditions are calm. The park abounds with white sand beaches, granite peaks and heathland that are home to pygmy possums, western grey kangaroos, and colourful wildflowers.
33. Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, the Kimberley
Learn about Indigenous culture during a stay at this remote wilderness camp, owned and run by the Bardi Jawi communities. Camp or stay in a safari tent or cabin on native title land on the northern tip of the Dampier Peninsula, and take tours to learn about bush tucker, attend a ranger talk, go whale watching or fishing, or book a scenic flight over Horizontal Falls.
34. Hamersley Gorge, Karijini National Park
With folded swirling bands of coloured ancient rock, and stepped waterfalls at its base, Hamersley Gorge is a sight to behold. In the northwest corner of Karijini National Park, it is the park’s most remote gorge. From the trailhead, it is a 400m walk down roughly hewn steps to the gorge floor, where you can swim in the pool and relax under the shade of the trees.
35. Nature’s Window, Kalbarri National Park
Formed from layers of sandstone, this natural rock arch provides fabulous views over Kalbarri National Park, around 500km north of Perth, and perfectly frames the Murchison River. It’s accessible via The Loop Walk, which is an easy 1km return hike from the car park.
36. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Spot koalas, kangaroos and emus in this protected area, just 45 minutes’ drive from the Canberra CBD. There are 22 marked trails, ranging from a 15-minute stroll to full-day hikes. The kids will have a ball in the Nature Discovery Playground, and there are great picnic spots and barbecue areas.
37. Uriarra Loop Walk
Meander along the Murrumbidgee and Molonglo Rivers as you discover a different side of Canberra on this 3.5km walk. You will find a forest of large river oaks before emerging into grazing country, where you can spy ducks and white-faced herons. There are also picnic tables and wood-fired barbecues at Uriarra East and West recreation areas.
38. Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary
With its predator-proof fence, this sanctuary in Canberra’s northeast is a haven for woodland animals such as the endangered eastern bettong and eastern quoll. On the two-hour guided Twilight Tour, you may also see sugar gliders and wallabies.
39. Majura Nature Reserve
Soak in the views of Canberra from the summit of Mt Majura, the highest peak in Canberra Nature Park at 888m above sea level. There are several walking trails to choose from – the 3.8km-long Casuarina Trail takes you through various types of woodland and open forest, also offering impressive views from the Mt Majura ridge. It is suitable for families and takes about two hours.
It may not be as famous as the Barossa or Hunter Valley, but the ACT is an established wine region. There are more than 30 wineries within 35 minutes’ drive of Canberra, many of them family-friendly. Lake George Winery has giant games such as Connect Four, a small kids’ play area that includes colouring and a few games, a flying fox and a tractor to climb on. Tallagandra Hill Winery has a playground set for kids, while Murrumbateman Winery has a ping pong table, chalkboard tables and colouring books. Clonakilla also offers colouring books, a basket of toys, and outdoor games such as quoits, and you can BYO picnic lunch.
OTHER AUSTRALIAN TERRITORIES
41. Norfolk Island
It’s a well-known destination for retirees on bus tours, but Norfolk Island also has plenty to offer families. The Australian territory is an easy 2.5 hour flight from Sydney or Brisbane, so you may feel like you are travelling overseas without leaving the country. Once there, swim or snorkel in the lagoon at Emily Bay to see the colourful fish and coral, learn how goat’s cheese is made at Hilli’s Farm, and marvel at the rock formations on a guided sea kayaking tour. Wander around the ruins of the convict settlement and fascinating graveyard at Kingston, or join a guided trek to the outer island, Phillip Island. Be sure to raise a finger at passing cars when you’re driving, known as ‘the Norfolk wave’.
42. Christmas Island
Notorious for being the site of an immigration detention centre, Christmas Island is also a fantastic travel destination for nature lovers. Located 2,600km northwest of Perth, the island is actually closer to Indonesia than it is to mainland Australia. Swim at deserted beaches named after the female relatives of the first settlers, go snorkelling in amazingly clear water to see glowing coral gardens, hike through rainforest, or go fishing or birdwatching. You can try to time your trip to coincide with the annual red crab migration, described by beloved naturalist Sir David Attenborough as “one of the ten greatest natural wonders on earth”. And there’s even more reason to visit now, with the luxury eco-lodge Swell Lodge a major drawcard.
43. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Even further away, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are the epitome of paradise. Only two of the 27 islands that form the two atolls, 2,750km northwest of Perth and 900km from Christmas Island, are inhabited. Relax on empty beaches, go island hopping by canoe, or catch the ferry to Home Island to stay at the historic Clunies-Ross residence, and discover the culture and traditions of the Cocos Malay people who reside on the island.
Please check websites to ensure attractions are open or operating before planning a holiday.