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The 7 best Australia holidays to do in your lifetime, from the Kimberley to Kangaroo Island

Australia offers a wealth of options for true bucket-list adventures, from safari-style camps on the sand to trips into the Outback

Benjamin Parker
Friday 30 June 2023 08:12 BST
Hot sand on toes in Cape Range National Park
Hot sand on toes in Cape Range National Park (Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef )

As the old poem by Dorothea Mackellar, written about her homeland, goes: “I love a sunburnt country”. And Australia is certainly somewhere to love.

The Great Southern Land is a diverse assemblage of some of the most beautiful natural elements anywhere in the world – spanning coral-laden coast to the scorching expanse of the Outback – through to ultra-cool, cosmopolitan cities like Sydney and Melbourne.

Holidays to Australia can range from low-budget backpacking to family resort stays, and everything in between. But there are some holidays which will truly create memories that last a lifetime. They don’t always come cheap, but they’re worth every penny.

If you want an antipodean adventure that really knocks your thongs off – or flip-flops, if you’d rather – then these are for you. From an iconic train journey to swimming with minke whales, here are some of the holidays you should try your hardest to do at least once in your lifetime.

Reach the Red Centre

Visit the very heart of Australia with a holiday that takes in the Red Centre’s extraordinary landscapes – desert plains far into the horizon, rugged mountain ranges and deep gorges – as well as sacred indigenous sites, including Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Uluru is known throughout the world as an Australian landmark (Getty Images)

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A six-day trip to the Outback with Intrepid is designed to immerse you in First Nations culture as well as natural beauty. Highlights include taking part in a “Welcome or Acknowledgement of Country” to recognise the traditional owners of the land, the Anangu, treks along the West MacDonnell Ranges and Kings Canyon, and admiring Uluru from multiple angles and at different times of the day, allowing you to fill your Instagram with varying photos. At nightfall, the lack of pollution means constellations shine bright.

From £1,496pp, including accommodation, activities and most meals; shorter packages, plus a holiday for families with children aged under five, are also available.

The Kimberley from the coast

Along with the Arctic and Alaska, the Kimberly in Australia’s north-west is one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. The size of it – twice that of the UK – compared with its inhabitants (40,000 people) gives some idea of its vastness. It has an unspoilt coastline, dotted with more than 2,000 islands and teeming with marine life, which makes it perfect for exploring from the ocean.

The ‘beehive’ domes in the Bungle Bungle Range, found in The Kimberley (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

APT is one of only a handful of operators that offer sailings in the Kimberley, with its small ship carrying no more than 99 passengers. Subject experts travel on every trip, covering topics such as ornithology, herpetology and marine biology, so travellers can really dig into what makes the region special. Daily excursions onboard Zodiac boat reveal the Kimberley’s gems, such as Montgomery Reef, where the area’s large tidal range creates the effect of the reef rising out of the sea; the same tidal phenomenon creates Horizontal Falls, which Sir David Attenborough described as “one of the greatest natural wonders of the world”. As for human history, one highlight is getting to see examples of cave art depicting European tall ships arriving, dating back to the 15th century.

Departures run May-September. The 10-day Grand Kimberley Coast cruise costs from £6,295pp based on two sharing a twin cabin. Includes experiences in 18 destinations, daily excursions by boat, 26 “locally inspired” meals, and complimentary drinks.

Splash about with minkes

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, a kaleidoscope of coral cays and vibrant fish. It’s also the only place in the world where people are permitted to swim with dwarf minke whales. They travel through tropical northern Queensland every winter (it’s the southern hemisphere, so that’s June and July for best sightings), the same time visibility in the Ribbon Reefs is excellent. Dive beneath into the warm waters, sunlight shimmering off the celestial blue waves, and come face to face with the creatures as they glide past.

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, which is based in Cairns, where city meets rainforest, has been offering minke whale dive excursions since 1996. In that time, the largest pod found contained 28 whales – and the company says they have a 98 per cent success rate in finding the animals.

From AU$2,143pp (£1,151) for a three-night expedition, including accommodation on liveaboard dive boat Spoilsport, flight from Cairns to Lizard Island, up to 10 dives and meals; longer trips are available.

Keen to get friendly with a minke whale? This could be the holiday for you (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hop from Great Ocean Road to Kangaroo Island

There’s much to see (and often too little time to see it) in southern Australia. For a whirlwind eight-day tour taking in the best in the region, Contiki has you covered. Begin with the laneways, coffee and hipster spots of Melbourne, Australia’s trendiest city, before heading out along the Great Ocean Road; the hulking limestone stacks that make up The Twelve Apostles will be among the landmarks you’ll pass.

The next big stop is Adelaide, via geological wonders such as Umpherston Sinkhole and Blue Lake, marvelling at the labyrinthine rocks and strange, gushing waterfalls of rainwater. The “city of churches” is often written off as dull but, while it’s not up there with Melbourne or Sydney, there are some decent restaurants and bars, plenty of green spaces and beaches within a 20-minute walk of the centre.

Then it’s on to Kangaroo Island, a wild zoo home to dolphins, echidnas, koalas, seals and – of course – its namesake Aussie animal. Visit Flinders Chase National Park, in the island’s south-western corner, for incredible rock formations (like Admirals Arch) and colonies of penguins.

From £1,418pp, including accommodation, four breakfasts, two lunches and one dinner, full transportation, trip manager and local guides; flights not included.

King George Beach, one of the attractions on Kangaroo Island (Getty Images)

North to south by rail

The Ghan still offers, after almost a century in service, one of the world’s great train journeys, up there with Paris to Istanbul on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and chugging through Mexico’s Copper Canyon on the El Chepe. It rumbles right through the Outback, and is named after the Afghans who worked to open up the Australian interior on camels.

Having been lulled to sleep the previous night by the gentle click-clack of wheels on rails, each morning welcomes a new destination. A three-night train holiday from Journey Beyond Rail begins in steamy Darwin, in the Northern Territory, cruising through the Red Centre’s Alice Springs and quirky mining town of opal Coober Pedy (where, due to the heat, more than half the residents live underground), before steaming into Adelaide. At each stop, activities await those who disembark, from a barbecue under the stars at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station to paddling down Nitmiluk Gorge.

From £1,977pp, including meals, drinks and off-train experiences.

The Adelaide–Darwin railway line is almost 2,000 miles long (Journey Beyond Rail)

A walk on the wild side

Just over two miles from Tasmania’s east coast is Maria Island, a national park and medley of pristine beaches, a clear waters, dense forest and magnificent peaks. Rare and endangered wildlife, such as Cape Barron geese and, of course, the Tasmanian devil, call it their home.

The only vehicles on Maria Island belong to the Parks and Wildlife Service, which is just as well because it’s best experienced on foot. The Maria Island Walk is a four-day guided holiday that covers about 26 miles (42km), taken through the phenomenal landscapes while learning about the history of the outpost (including it’s role as a convict settlement) from experienced guides.

The wonderful ‘painted cliffs’ on Maria Island (Getty Images)

You’ll spend two of your nights in wilderness bush camps – which means falling asleep to waves lapping the shore – and the other in the heritage-listed Bernacchi House, which in 2022 was given a major refurbishment.

Prices start from $2,850pp (£1,527) based on two sharing.

Camping beside coral

Western Australia’s Cape Range National Park is bursting with wildlife. Located in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area, it hums with a diverse range of creatures, from kangaroos to emus, wallabies to echidnas – proper Down Under animals. It’s also right next to Ningaloo Reef, which comes alive with more than 500 species of fish and 250 types of coral, and is exceptional for water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding and snorkelling.

Have that blow-out holiday with Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef’s foot-in-sand luxury (Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef)

If you love the idea of the sun waking you up as it rises over the reef, then a luxury stay at Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef is the perfect bolt-on for a longer Australia holiday. The safari tents have some non-negotiables to ensure the luxe-factor remains – a supremely comfortable bed, an ensuite bathroom, drinking water and daily cleaning service – but other than that it’s just you, the ocean, the reef and the ranges. Food and wine, like in most of Australia, is taken seriously here and it’s done well, so expect hearty fare after you work up an appetite swimming with whale sharks and humpback whales.

From £,1220 a night, with a minimum two-night stay; includes all meals, drinks, national park fees and activities.

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