A friend's wedding gave Julian Eccles and his family the chance to explore New South Wales off the tourist trail

"Right: we're coming," we promised Jayne. Two years ago our good friend had emigrated to Australia to live with her boyfriend, Adam. She is our 10-year-old son Sam's godmother, so her wedding could not really be missed. But how sensible would it be to take the family, including four-year-old Dan, on a trip Down Under over the Easter school holidays? And where exactly was their hometown, Ballina NSW?

We assembled a wish list. Sam focused on playing inflight games at 30,000 feet and learning to surf. Dan wanted a close encounter with kangaroos. Catherine's aims were to see Jayne and to avoid creepy-crawlies. And I would be happy simply to experience Sydney harbour. These demands prescribed the route.

Singapore Airlines got the gaming vote. Sam was in Super Mario heaven soon after take-off. Thirteen hours later, we were in balmy Singapore. The airline throws in bargain stop-over opportunities at its home-base, breaking up what could for our lads have been a painfully long journey. It also gave us a taste of the tropics.

Two days later, as dawn broke over Botany Bay, we set foot on Australian soil - and my wish was granted almost immediately. The view from our 13th-floor pad at Quay West Suites was every bit the visual cliché I had anticipated: Sydney Harbour Bridge to the left, the Opera House to the right and cream-and-green ferries chugging out of Circular Quay below.

After a day's recuperation, it was time to use our transport of choice: the ferry. Our first stop was Manly, aboard the biggest ship in the municipal fleet. The vessel takes you the length of the beautiful harbour eastwards from Circular Quay, passing the Opera House and zoo on the way. After half an hour we were deposited at Manly quay and ambled down the Corso to the beach, picking up fish and chips on the way. For Dan's treat it was back on a ferry to Taronga Zoo, which brought both the "roo" encounter and that other zoological cliché: a photo with a koala.

The remaining days in Sydney were packed with ferry trips to Luna Park - the iconic, fading and nostalgic amusement attraction - and to the chic and modern Darling Harbour for its superb aquarium, maritime museum and child-friendly restaurants. On our final day we took a bus through town to the spiritual home of surf, Bondi Beach, and then treated ourselves to dinner at Doyle's quayside restaurant. It was the ideal place for Sam to tuck into his first lobster, with the Opera House reflecting across the water.

Ballina may be only a small town near the Queensland state border, but it has a smart little airport - and frequent flights from Sydney. The Virgin Blue 737 was full of weekenders heading for hippy Byron Bay nearby.

Every day for the next two weeks we were on a stunning beach under beautiful autumn sunshine interrupted only by the occasional tropical downpour. In Ballina, Shelly Beach gave us our first glimpse of dolphins riding through the surf as well as a daily bumper breakfast at the superb café above it. Most travellers only know Ballina for the absurd giant prawn atop a seafood restaurant beside the Pacific Highway which snakes round the town. If they stop, they find a quiet but friendly town.

These are not brochure beach towns, but they offer superb coastline, wildlife and space. Lennox Head, five miles north of Ballina, boasts the vast expanse of sand that is Seven Mile Beach. Its surf was perfect for the first of six surfing lessons which saw Sam stand up within an hour. Just inland from the beach is Lake Ainsworth, in whose tea-tree-stained brown water you can swim, sailboard and canoe. Byron Bay, 10 miles up from Lennox Head, is better known. The ultimate beach is Wategos where, even amid the luxury homes, we parked free right by the beach before hitting the surf and rock pools.

An hour's drive inland takes you to the heart of the rainbow region of New South Wales. There lies Nimbin, a timewarp town seemingly full of Woodstock extras loping past brightly painted wooden buildings containing cafés, galleries and even the Hemp Embassy. Heading northwards another 10 miles to the Border Ranges National Park, we arrived at an extraordinary World Heritage rainforest site with a 30-mile track around an ancient volcanic bowl.

The highlight, though, was the sunset ceremony on Lighthouse Beach. Against a reddening sky and the crash of surf, Adam and Jayne tied the knot.

I would have given plenty of tinnies to stay longer. But summer term 10,000 miles away beckoned . Counting three overnight flights and two Singapore stopovers, we had slept in nine different places in four weeks. We had not "done" Australia by any means. Instead, we got a taste of what it had to offer. And we avoided the crowds, searing heat and high travel costs of the peak New Year season and got a look at small-town life on the way.