Driven to distractions in Australia

A road trip is one of the cheapest and most liberating ways to explore the dramatic landscapes and cultural highlights of this vast nation

What's the attraction?

There's no escaping it: the Australian dollar is cripplingly strong right now, making that dream trip Down Under an expensive undertaking. But the strong economy also means there's lots going on, so rather than miss out, keep costs down and hit the road. Petrol is one-third cheaper in Australia than it is in the UK; use budget motels or even hire a camper-van (and cook for yourself). Suddenly, things won't seem so pricey. There are other bonuses: "Driving is easy – same side as the UK," says Austravel's Karen Joyce (0800 988 4676; austravel.com). "Plus you can pace your holiday as you want, and stop wherever you like."

Time-poor travellers

By Australian standards, Victoria is petite (though it's still more than 10 times the size of Wales), which means you can see plenty without driving huge distances. Indeed, the eight-day Great Southern Touring Route from Wexas Travel (020 7590 0614; wexas.com; from £2,243pp including flights, car and accommodation) packs in the state's best bits. Starting in Melbourne, it traces the classic Great Ocean Road past vineyards, surfy Bells Beach and the Twelve Apostles rock stacks before veering inland to the Grampians for hikes and rock art. Good stops include Cape Otway Ecology Centre (conservationecologycentre.org) and Daylesford, for rejuvenating spa soaks.

Outback exploring

Nothing sums up Oz like the rust-red vastness of the Northern Territory. Travelbag (0871 703 4240; travelbag.co.uk) has flights to its capital, Darwin, plus 14 nights' campervan hire from £1,399pp. The epic option is a 4,000km drive to Adelaide along the Explorer's Way, following in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart – the first man to cross Australia, north to south in 1861-2. It took Stuart nine months, but the journey is now achievable in two weeks, visiting big-hitters such as Nitmiluk gorge, Litchfield National Park and Uluru. Or link the Red Centre Way – six days around Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges – with the 550km Nature's Way loop from Darwin to Katherine. See travelnt.com for itineraries.

Go wild

South Australia combines well with other states for big road trips: maybe the long haul up to Darwin or east to Melbourne. For something shorter, combine Adelaide with a drive through the Fleurieu Peninsula (great for whales and wineries) to Kangaroo Island. Here, watch fur seals at Cape du Couedic, penguins at Kingscote and koalas at Hanson Bay, and hike amid the Remarkable Rocks. The island could be circumnavigated in a day, but better to spend time exploring its nooks, from beaches to cellar doors. Flight Centre offers a six-night Adelaide and Kangaroo Island tour (0844 561 1087; flightcentre.co.uk) from £1,349pp including flights, accommodation and car hire.

Coast and coral

Driving up east-coast Australia is the stuff of travel legend, mixing reef, rainforest and abundant isles. Austravel's Queensland Classic eight-night fly-drive heads north from Brisbane to Cairns via the dunes and dingoes of Fraser Island, the white-sand Whitsundays and laidback Magnetic Island (0800 988 4834; austravel.com; from £1,649pp including flights, car hire and accommodation); included is a backpack of maps and stop-off tips.

Independent souls can hire a camper from Apollo (020-7193 2066; apollocamper.com; from A$622/£415 for seven days) to tackle the Tropics and Tablelands, a week's drive from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands.

Accessible wilderness

Tasmania is wild but easily explorable. It has classy retreats too, utilised on Bridge & Wickers' 10-day Wilderness Tassie Self-Drive (020 3642 5680; bridgeandwickers.co.uk; from £2,499pp with flights, accommodation and car). This looping roadtrip from Hobart includes Strahan's Wheelhouse Apartments; the rustic cabins of Cradle Mountain Lodge; and Freycinet Lodge, for fine food on a wild peninsula. One of Tasmania's greatest drives is the 125km "Road to Nowhere". Follow it from Strahan, cross the Pieman River by barge, and arrive the Tarkine Rainforest to see devils in the wild. Innkeepers Tasmania (00 61 3 6224 3100; innkeeper.com.au) lists itineraries and accommodation.

Taste of the west

Western Australia covers a third of the country. Hire a camper from Maui (00 61 3 8398 8855; maui-rentals.com; from A$159/ £106 per day based on seven-day hire) for an epicurean loop from Perth. Sip your way around Margaret River's wineries, truffle hunt in Pemberton's karri forests and slurp oysters in Albany. You won't get lost: from 2013, Maui includes GPS and iPod docks. Or try Cox & Kings' 17-day West Coast Explorer (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk; from £4,325pp including car, domestic flights and accommodation; international flights extra). It combines the gourmet south-west with Exmouth coast, snorkelling Ningaloo Reef and luxury "camping" at Sal Salis.

City freebies

Australia offers great freebies in its access hubs. In Melbourne, ride Tram 35 – the free city circle route (ptv.vic.gov.au). In Sydney, several museums are gratis, including the historical Rocks Discovery Museum (therocks.com). Plus, its spectacular New Year's Eve fireworks display is also free. Adelaide offers free bike hire (bikesa.asn.au/Adelaide CityBikes) while Perth's vast Kings Park is an open-to-all playground, with a 620m walkway up in the eucalypt canopy (bgpa.wa.gov.au/kings-park). In Canberra, celebrate spring at the month-long Floriade, where a million bulbs come into bloom alongside cultural activities (Sept-Oct; floriadeaustralia.com).

Who said that?

"There's an expression in Australia: 'Go Bush' – to get out of the city and relax. I don't get to do that often, so for the most part, it's just a state of mind." – Cate Blanchett

"You feel free in Australia. There is great relief in the atmosphere – a relief from tension, from pressure, an absence of control of will or form." – DH Lawrence

"May as well be here; we are as where we are." – Aboriginal saying

Insider information

"A fly-drive is a great way to soak up Australia. Think about round trips to avoid one-way car hire fees. Try to avoid more than four hours' driving a day. And avoid driving at night – kangaroos can cause real damage!" Christie Lord, Tourism Western Australia (westernaustralia.com)

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