Traveller's guide: New South Wales

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Start in Sydney, then explore the Blue Mountains, take in tranquil coastlines and soak up Outback landscapes in Australia's First State, says Paul Whitfield


Starting in Sydney?

Yes: the state capital of New South Wales has better air links from the UK than the rest of Australia put together. And if the wind is in the right direction as you fly in, your appetite for Australia's largest city will be whetted by the best of starts. As the aircraft banks over Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, you can look down on the Bridge, Opera House – and a patchwork of red-tiled roofs and pale blue swimming pools.

The place to get your feet wet is Bondi Beach, where the city's eastern suburbs roll down the hill to a lovely, kilometre-long arc of beach. Here, bronzed bodies recline in between sessions fighting the crashing surf. Board riders populate the southern end, families the calmer north, and when you've had enough of the beach it is just a few steps to a great array of cafés and restaurants, some with balconies that are perfect for a sundowner. And a new nightclub has just opened in Bondi that is so exclusive you literally need a key to get in. White Revolver ( whiterevolver.com) is located beneath the Swiss-Grand Hotel; entry is through a secret wall panel via an art gallery façade. By day, the space functions as an art gallery and café, but after 9pm it's transformed into a nightclub.

Can I drift away?

Of course – and there can be few better ways to spend a day than getting out on the harbour ferries (A$17/£9 for an all-day ticket; 00 61 131500; sydneyferries.info) from Circular Quay. Start with the Manly Ferry which chugs past the Opera House on its way to the northerly beach suburb of Manly for a morning swim and an espresso at Bacino, an Italian joint on The Corso. Spend a couple of hours at Taronga Zoo (00 61 2 9969 2777; taronga.org.au) then lunch on lightly deep-fried barramundi and chips overlooking a quiet inlet at the Mosman Rowing Club. Finally, cruise under the Harbour Bridge to up-and-coming Balmain where a wealth of old-school Aussie pubs are matched by some great new restaurants and bars.

Can I throw another shrimp on the barbie?

Yes, you can easily live the cliché. All along the NSW coast you'll see clusters of men, beer bottles clamped in foam stubby-holders, clustered around a council-issue gas barbecue while the rest of the brood pulls salads and tomato sauce out of the "esky". Join them. Stick a couple of coins in the slot, a smear of oil on the hotplate and slap on a dozen fat shrimps.

But NSW cuisine extends far beyond such low-tech delights. Sydney in particular has a fabulous array of places to eat, courtesy of waves of immigrants over the decades. You'll need to head to Leichhardt for Italian, Haymarket for Chinese or Cabramatta for authentic Vietnamese, while the inner-city suburbs such as Surry Hills and Darlinghurst are groaning with classy, modern restaurant and bars. For fine views over the Harbour Bridge and Opera House it is hard to go past a terrace seat at Cafe Sydney (00 61 2 9251 8683), or a birds-eye cocktail at Orbit (00 61 2 9247 9777), on the 47th floor of the Australia Square tower.

Time to leave town

The Blue Mountains comprise the classic Sydney weekend destination. For decades they were a barrier to westward expansion of the fledgling colony around Sydney, something that hardly seems credible today when trains from Sydney Central (00 61 131 500; cityrail.info) glide with ease up the escarpment to Katoomba. The explorers' difficulties become more apparent when you wander down the main street to Echo Point lookout where the world falls away below your feet.

Over eons, the ancient sandstone has been weathered into vast chasms lined by vertical cliffs and separated by narrow ridges. Row upon row recede into the distance each bluer than the last thanks to the hazing effect of droplets of eucalyptus oil given off by the gum trees – stringy barks, scribbly gums, red bloodwoods and more.

To your left stand the Three Sisters, some of the most photographed rocky outcrops in Australia. Come in the afternoon when the sun casts a golden hue, or in the early morning when the sisters often rise above the cloud-filled valley.

Set a few hours aside to hike the National Pass trail, one of the best half-day walks in Australia. It effectively follows a ledge halfway down the cliff-face skirting along the valley-side past assorted waterfalls and with superb long views. It sounds vertiginous, and you need a modest head for heights, but you never feel too exposed and railings protect the trickier spots.

And the Outback?

New South Wales might not conjure up images of jolly swagmen camped by a billabong, but the state has its share of Outback. Beyond the Blue Mountains and the drought-stricken rice-growing country of the Riverina lie hundreds of kilometres of sparse scrub. Years of pitiful rainfall have taken their toll and once-prosperous sheep stations have suffered terribly.

Australians are always complaining about drought, but some argue that 10-plus years of low rainfall isn't drought: that's your climate. It is a realisation that has begun to sink in, and land use is changing accordingly.

Large tracts of western NSW have now been refashioned as National Parks, typically with a visitor centre occupying the old homestead or shearing sheds. One of the best is Mungo National Park (00 61 3 5021 8900; tiny.cc/AoG5J) with its dry lake beds and a long, crescent-shaped system of low dunes known as the Walls of China. A stroll through the dunes is perfect at sunset when the low, red glow casts long shadows from the spectacular wind and water-carved formations. Walk quietly and you've a good chance of catching kangaroos grazing on what must be very meagre pickings along the dune edge, and as the sun drops below the horizon sit in the still evening air and watch the glorious sky change from pink to orange to purple. It is a scene witnessed for over 40,000 years by Aborigines who came to the area when it was a string of freshwater lakes. The dunes occasionally reveal evidence of their time here along with the bones of the megafauna which was their quarry.

Mungo Lodge (00 61 3 5029 7297; mungolodge.com.au) offers comfortable accommodation a few kilometres from the dunes; a deluxe cabin costs $145 (£75) per person, excluding breakfast; or for the full Outback experience head for the basic Belah campground (00 61 3 5021 8900) where chances are you'll wake up to the sight of kangaroos and emus grazing.

Will Priscilla be there?

Not exactly. There are spots all over New South Wales where scenes from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were shot, but none better than the desert mining town of Broken Hill. Remember Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi strutting down Argent Street, the city's main drag? Mario's Palace Hotel (00 61 8 8088 1699), where the girls stayed, is still there at number 227, though you may have to ask around to get access to the atrium smothered in over-the-top murals with Botticelli's Birth of Venus on high. The Priscilla Room. as used in the film, costs A$80 (£40) for two per night, not including breakfast.

The dragster scenes in Priscilla were shot 25km out of Broken Hill at Silverton, a place that seems immediately familiar if you've ever seen an Outback movie or an Aussie beer commercial. There are just a handful of broken-down buildings widely scattered across a red dirt plain with the broad-verandahed Silverton Hotel in pride of place. Nip into the pub for a cold one and peruse the walls, plastered with stills from Mad Max II.

Grape expectations?

Two hours' drive north from Sydney, and slightly to the west, lies the Hunter Valley. "The Hunter" is Australia's oldest wine-producing region, where vineyards were thriving as far back as 1824. More recently the area's strengths have been with shiraz and semillon grapes while well-rated chardonnay wines have also been produced. The Hunter Wine and Visitors' Centre in Pokolbin (00 61 2 490 0900; winecountry.com.au) provides maps and detailed information about the current 70-plus wineries here as well as advice on other activities such as ballooning, parachuting and mountain biking.

Over the last few decades the region has become a gourmet getaway, dedicated to fine living as well as to the grape. Among the rolling hills there is a liberal sprinkling of top-notch hotels and restaurants, along with golf courses and horse-riding trails.

The most highly respected dining options include Terroir Restaurant at the Hungerford Hill winery (00 61 2 4990 0711; hungerfordhill.com.au). Among the most sought-after accommodation is Peppers Guest House at Pokolbin (00 61 2 4998 7596; peppers.com.au), a discreetly stylish retreat with 48 bedrooms and friendly kangaroos that hop about the grounds; and Tower Lodge (00 61 2 4998 7022; towerlodge.com.au) on the Tower Estate. The latter is an extraordinary 12-bedroom boutique hotel with colonnaded swimming pool, huge fireplaces, opulent mirrors and cascading chandeliers.

I'm craving the coast

Head for the South Coast, as the Australians call the stretch of shore south of Sydney towards Batemans Bay and the Victoria state border. "You never knew anything so nothing, Nichts, Nullus, niente, as the life here," grizzled DH Lawrence when he arrived in New South Wales 87 years ago. But he soon started writing his epic novel Kangaroo at lightning speed in a rented bungalow called Wyewurk, perched on the edge of the Pacific in the picturesque resort of Thirroul, about 40 miles south of Sydney. From Sydney's Central station, there are regular trains to the South Coast, all of which stop at Thirroul. Wyewurk is at 3 Craig Street, about 10 minutes' walk from the station. Visitors are not encouraged.

A lifetime after Lawrence left, the significance of this location became evident to white Australians. In 1998, just south along the beach from Wyewurk, where the writer took his daily walk, big seas unearthed from the sand dunes the 6,000-year-old bones of an elder from the Kuradji people. Subsequent archaeological digs have confirmed that the coastal wetlands here are rich in native artefacts.

One of the most unusual places to stay is Paperbark Camp (00 61 2 4441 6066; paperbarkcamp.com.au), which re-opened for the Australian summer season yesterday. No need to pitch a tent nor unroll your backpack: this was the first Australian venue to import Southern Africa's winning formula of jungle camping, so you can experience the joys of luxury life under canvas without having to lug it around on your back. A night here costs A$340 (£175) for twin share, including breakfast.

Where can I get lost and find myself?

Byron Bay, the easternmost point of both the NSW mainland and the Australian continent. Hundreds of thousands of backpackers have stopped in Byron Bay on their way up the coast from Sydney to the glories of the Great Barrier Reef.

Over the years Byron Bay has lost some of its small-town hippy vibe, and dreadlocked crusties selling jewellery have now been joined by chain stores. But McDonald's remains absent and, especially outside the December to February summer season, there's still something of the "alternative lifestyle" ethic.

Massage, aromatherapy and reflexology rules at Quintessence ( quintessencebyron.com.au), where a half-hour deep-muscle massage costs A$60 (£30). For the wilder end of the spectrum head to holistic Ambaji (ambajihouseofwellbeing.com), which claims to help you become the best person possible by adopting "Living the Belief of Improving Wellness". (Let us know if it works.)

Of the many accommodation options on offer, one of the most intriguing is the Arts Factory (00 61 2 6685 7709; artsfactory.com.au), which offers a range of alternatives including dorms and teepees. A double room costs A$240 (£120) for three nights, excluding breakfast.

You may just be content to spend a day or two on the beach and to wander out to the lighthouse on Cape Byron that marks the easternmost point. It is a great place to watch the sun rise and, in the months of June, July, September and October, you might spot humpback whales puffing their way along the coast.

Paul Whitfield is the co-author of The Rough Guide to Australia, the 9th edition of which is published this week. See roughguides.com

Additional research by Alec Webb, Deirdre Coleman and Simon Calder

Know Howe: NSW's offshore outpost

Some 600km east of the mainland, but still within NSW, Lord Howe Island manages the perfect island balance – enough activities to keep you entertained, but not so many that you feel obliged to leave the beach for too long. It boasts two-thirds of this 11km by 3km island set aside as a reserve, a lengthy fringe of Australia's southernmost coral reef and fascinating birdlife. Accommodation, restaurants, beaches and the four shops are so close that everyone who hasn't grabbed one of the bicycles from their guesthouse just walks everywhere, and no buildings pierce the canopy of endemic kentia palms.

In between swimming and snorkelling with turtles, venture up Malabar Hill to see the red-tailed tropicbirds swooping along the cliffs, spend an hour knee-deep in the sea at Ned's Beach where metre-long kingfish brush against your calves, then head to the back of the beach at dusk for the clumsy arrival of muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters) returning to their burrows from a day's fishing. They often land right next to you before waddling off seemingly unconcerned about your presence.

Adventurous hikers should set a day aside for the ascent of the 875-metre Mount Gower, the island's highest point, topped by mist forest. It is a tough walk, always done with a licensed guide such as Jack Shick (00 612 2 6563 2218; tiny.cc/ie8WC) and involving a precarious path along a cliff-face and sections so steep that you have to pull yourself up on ropes. You're rewarded with a great view south to Balls Pyramid, at 548m high the world's tallest sea stack.

Back in the settlement, guests at Pinetrees Lodge (00 61 2 9262 6585; pinetrees.com.au) get to watch the sun set at the beachside boathouse with a glass of wine from the honesty bar.

Many residents still use the island's patois – a version of 18th-century English dialect that's been much distorted on its passage through Polynesia.

From Sydney, Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.co.uk) flies daily to Lord Howe Island in the peak season (roughly September to May); the airline also has some flights from Brisbane. Agencies that specialise in holidays on Lord Howe Island include Talpacific Holidays (020-8288 8400; talpacific.com.au), Pacific Traveller (00 61 3 8662 7399; pacifictraveller.com.au) and Oxley Travel (00 61 2 6583 1995; oxleytravel.com.au).

Travel essentials: New South Wales

Getting there

You cannot yet fly non-stop from Britain to Sydney (Qantas has flown at least one 747 between Heathrow and Sydney, but it had no passengers on board). To make the most of your journey to New South Wales, choose a good stopover – ideally a different city in either direction. The BA/Qantas partnership makes this easy, with Hong Kong and Bangkok among the options, and Emirates offers various combinations. On carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, your only option is the hub city (Hong Kong and Singapore, respectively), unless you build it into a round-the-world itinerary with inbound stopovers in the US.

Sydney's Airport Link trains ( airportlink.com.au) run into the city frequently (A$24/£12.30 return), but you may find it more convenient to use one of the shuttle bus services which drop off at hotels, B&Bs and hostels in the inner suburbs, where most people prefer to stay. The KST Airporter (00 61 2 9666 9988, kst.com.au) charges A$23 (£11.80) return from the airport to most places.

Getting around

A car is a liability if you plan to concentrate on Sydney's central attractions, beaches, restaurants and bars. The excellent train, bus and ferry services get you around the city quickly. But train and bus services around the state are skeletal and infrequent, so for wider travels you'll want a car. In western NSW, distances are long and the climate unforgiving, so it pays to get something decent.

A newish six-cylinder Falcon station wagon (the archetypal Aussie outback cruiser) will set you back A$77 (£40) a day through the international rental companies, though Travellers Auto Barn (00 61 1800 674 374; travellers-autobarn.com.au) will rent you one that's been there a few (dozen) times before for A$45 (£23) a day.

More information

Tourism New South Wales ( visitnsw.com) is an excellent source of information, while the ninth edition of 'The Rough Guide to Australia' is published this week ( roughguides.com).

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