Last winter, while at lunch in Times Square with my friend Jon, I got a phone call from a buddy of mine who decided to bail on our pending trip to Australia. On the spot, Jon (being the awesome friend that he is) said he would go with me. Two days later, we bought our tickets. Not knowing a whole lot about Australia, I started asking around. I’ve never been one to choose a vacation destination based on the best resort to lounge away the time. I just don’t have that kind of patience. I always seem to seek out the extremes, with a mix of a little bit of downtime. So, I planned ten days of adventure travel, ending the trip with five days in Sydney for Mardi Gras. From Melbourne to Port Douglas, Fraser Island, Sydney and the Blue Mountains, we covered more of the East Coast of Australia than I’ve seen of the East Coast of the United States. Australia turned out to be one of the friendliest, most accessible countries that I’ve ever visited. We discovered that February through March is the slow season for tourism, and it turned out to be the perfect time for us to travel without any crowds or hassles. Looking back on our itinerary, Jon and I both agreed that we had never had so many incredible experiences packed into one trip with the perfect balance of outdoor adventure and big city fun.
To start, I should mention that Australian Tourism was a great resource in planning the trip. Both our international and domestic flights were booked through Qantas, and the service was excellent. Our flights from NYC to Melbourne connected through LA, but luckily, our contact at Qantas was able to upgrade us to business class for the cross-U.S. flight. I haven’t been on a 747 in over a decade, so sitting down to a glass of champagne, pre-lift off, was amazing! Our goal was to stay awake for the NYC-LA leg so we could both knock ourselves out for the 14-hour haul from LA to Melbourne. But, once I figured out that our business class seats extended into beds, my goal of staying awake was quickly tossed. Needless to say, it was a rough transition into economy from LA to Melbourne, but Jon and I made the most of the catalogue of recent Oscar-winning films on our seat-back On Demand TVs.
In Melbourne, we spent two nights at The Albany Hotel in South Yarra, a residential neighborhood surrounding Fawkner Park. The hotel is moderately priced and rooms are designed in a modern décor. The brunch is fantastic, especially the fruit salad, which we both agreed was the best we’ve ever had. The Albany is situated very close to the gay area, which is centered on the intersection of Commercial Road and Chapel Street, but it’s also close to the business district of the city as well as the residential neighborhood of Toorak. Toorak Road is lined with trendy shops and great cafes including C.C. Gaia 3/4 Avoca Street, South Yarra; where we sat outside and had our two flat whites (sort of like the Australian version of a latte, but SO much better) amongst a stylish crowd who we both agreed were definitely The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Check out the St. Kilda Beach boardwalk, where you can sit in an open-aired restaurant eating fish and chips while watching the incredibly diverse crowd walk by. The city feels very progressive and you can’t miss the huge art installations that line the highway leading into the city as well as smack dab in the middle of town. The business district is immaculate and the architecture is not what you would expect- almost European. The restaurants rival NYC standards, especially a pan-Asian restaurant we tried called Cookie located a short walk from the city center at 252 Swanston Street (one flight up), a few blocks from the Yarra River.
On our third day Down Under, the first adventure began. We picked up our convertible in South Yarra and drove about an hour south of Melbourne to experience the Great Ocean Road. Signs on the highway proudly announce the entrance to the famed stretch of rugged road along the southeastern coastline of the continent. Heading west along the road is a 4- to 5-hour drive that starts at the surf-center town of Torquay and ends at Warrnambool, depending on how long you stop to visit the sights along the way. Described as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, the Great Ocean Road did not disappoint (DEFINITELY, book a convertible!) A few noteworthy stops include Bell’s Beach, Apollo Cove and Otway National Park (where you will see Koalas living in the wild in the eucalypt forest). Our destination for the day was Port Campbell, a seaside village situated towards the end of the Great Ocean Road, and famed for its extraordinary rock formations along “shipwreck” coast. Because we traveled during the end of February, traffic was light.
A macro shot of Anchors, a hotel by the ocean with breathtaking, awe-inspiring views
We spent our night in Port Campbell at Anchors, which features two cottages on the bluff outside of town. Each private cottage features a plate-glass wall facing the view of the rolling hills towards the sunset, along with a full kitchen, whirlpool bathtub and huge flat screen TVs.
That evening we ate at Waves, a highly recommended restaurant that featured an extensive wine list- a welcome sight after the long drive that day. That night, the Milky Way was out in full force overhead. Being from NYC, seeing SO many stars is always a novelty. I really felt completely away from the City, but with the Oscars being rebroadcast that night on Australian time, home still felt close.
Early the next morning, we jumped in our convertible and drove five minutes out of town to 12 Apostles Helicopter Tours. Our pilot’s name was Joel, so I knew we were in safe hands! Flying in a helicopter for the first time was great as I sat in the front, staring bug-eyed into the bubble-shaped windshield, peering like a fish out of its bowl. We circled the rocky coast at sunrise and saw the famous rock formations of The Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge and London Bridge from every angle while brooding storm clouds passed on the opposite horizon, creating a very dramatic scene.
An overhead shot of the beautiful ocean brushing up against the equally magnificient Loch Ard Gorges
After the flight, we hopped back in our car and hit the road back to Melbourne. They say that the Great Ocean Road looks completely different driving in either direction, so definitely drive back to Melbourne via the same route and you’ll swear you’re seeing sights you didn’t pass on the way out. Watch out for kangaroos along the drive: we skidded to a stop twice, almost hitting two of them hopping across the road!
After Melbourne, our next stop was north to Port Douglas, Queensland. A three-hour flight straight up the coast from Melbourne ended in an amazing wall of humidity upon deplaning at the tiny airport in Cairns. We picked up our car at the airport and began the 48 mile (77 km) drive north along the coast. Coming from the dry areas surrounding Melbourne, which had just began to recover from the forest fires it had suffered in early February, the lushness of the vegetation along our drive was stunning. So much green! Port Douglas is the more upscale, sophisticated resort town along the northern coast of Queensland to the younger-skewing, party town that is Cairns. The road to Port Douglas hugs the coastline and passes through fields of sugarcane and along vast, empty beaches and coves. We wondered why these pristine beaches were empty, but soon learned that swimming at a beach this north in Queensland at this time of year is simply not an option. Not only is there an increased risk of sharks, but crocodiles swim freely in the open water near river inlets and during February and March (the summer months), the waters run rampant with stingers (Iracongi jellyfish) which are virtually invisible and can deliver a deadly sting. Fun!
Salsa — the name of this well-known restaurant is as spicy and interesting as its food and personality
When we turned into the Port Douglas, we were not deterred by the giant strangler trees along the road from which thousands of giant insect-eating bats hung upside down. We passed several luxury resorts and found ourselves in the middle of town on Macrossan Street, which is lined with beautifully kept shops and fashionable restaurants and bars. At the end of Macrossan is the port itself from which daily scuba diving trips and reef tours depart. A few great restaurant choices that we sampled in town include
Bistro 3, Salsa, and 2 Fish.
By the poolside at Mai Tai Resort, Joel relaxes as he soaks up the sun
We spent our four nights in Port Douglas at the LGBT-friendly Mai Tai Resort situated about 6 miles (10 km) outside of town, midway up a rainforest covered mountain. The inn is Bali-themed with four rooms, each with a king-size bed draped with mosquito netting and access to your own private backyard underneath the jungle canopy. The view from the outdoor pool faces directly across the rainforest and sugarcane fields towards the ocean. Also, there is an executive villa separate from the main complex that has its own plunge pool, full kitchen and private driveway. Anthony and Andre (who own and run the inn) could not have been friendlier and more helpful during our stay. Breakfast is provided daily on the patio and includes fresh mango, dragon fruit, kiwi, toast with jam and of course, Vegemite! We had such an amazing and unique stay and were so happy we had the opportunity to spend our time in Port Douglas up in the rainforest at Mai Tai.
While up north, we had two days of scuba diving planned on the Great Barrier Reef. Since we were both beginners, we took introductory dives on Haba Great Barrier Reef Adventures and Poseidon. Each company was extremely gay-friendly and professional. We were fitted with lycra suits to protect us in case stinger jellyfish were present (they weren’t!), masks, flippers and tanks. On my first dive, it took a little bit of getting used to the process of unblocking my ears while descending and getting my breathing regulated, but once down below, serenity took over. I felt like I was swimming through the movie Finding Nemo. I was able to get up close to every nook and cranny of the reef, appreciating it in a way that I never could while snorkeling from the surface. I was fascinated to learn that by brushing my hand over the top of a giant clam caused its massive shell to close. I had my photo taken with a giant Malabar Cod named Daisy and chased after trumpet fish as they scuttled off into the reef. I have to admit; I fell in love with the experience and plan to get certified so I can do it again on my own. While under the ocean, you aren’t thinking about the stresses that pop into your head in daily life, not even once. On each of our five, 30-minute dives, my mind was completely clear and focused on my breathing and what I was seeing before me. Pretty cool!
On our third day in Port Douglas, we booked a trip to visit the Daintree Rainforest through Tony’s Tropical Tours. Tony turned out to be our most knowledgeable guide through the entire trip. We were picked up in a Landcruiser at our hotel at 8:30am to begin the drive north. We learned that the Daintree Rainforest is over 135 million years old and an outstanding example of the major stages in the earth’s evolutionary history. Some of the trees are over 3,000 years old! We crossed the Daintree River in a boat, spotting a crocodile on the shore, then up to Cape Tribulation where we walked onto the beach while the tide receded. We hiked to the Bloomfield Waterfall and stopped for a traditional Australian open-air barbeque, then had the chance to swim in a freshwater river deep in the rainforest, free of crocodiles. The adventure of the day picked up for a bit when the bus containing a tour group which was following us got bogged in a river road crossing and we had to tow them out. Another great and challenging day!
After leaving Port Douglas, we flew south to Brisbane, and connected through to Hervey Bay on a small propeller plane. From here, we took the last ferry of the night across the bay to our next destination, Fraser Island. Departing from Hervey Bay and slipping into the pitch-black harbor felt magical. Again, the Milky Way was overhead and I counted three shooting stars on the way over. Fraser Island is over 75 miles (120 km) long and is the world’s largest sand island where you can swim in 40 freshwater lakes surrounded by dunes, walk through ancient rainforests or four-wheel drive over 75 miles of coastal beach. Two resorts that sit on the east and west sides of the island’s shores. We stayed at the more posh of the two, the Kingfisher Bay Resort. The main property of the resort is nestled into the rainforest on the bay, with rooms built as cottages surrounding the main building, but hidden from view by the vegetation. The staff is incredibly accommodating. We were picked up at the dock and driven to our rooms where bottles of wine and cheese plates waited. Not too shabby!
The next morning, we woke early to catch the “Beauty Spot” tour offered by the resort. We spent the day exploring the island in a 4-wheel drive bus, covering the sand roads out into the bush. We stopped at Lake McKenzie which features a crystal clear deposit of the whitest, softest silica sand I’ve ever touched. Then, we drove out onto the open beach. Fraser Island’s 75-mile beach features exactly that, 75 miles of pure, untouched beach to drive along. Again, there was no swimming in these waters because of the shark warnings. Of course, I’m not one to believe such threats until I see them with my own eyes, so when we pulled up alongside a 4-seater plane on the beach and the pilot promised shark sightings, I was on board within seconds. Sure enough, I spotted four, 7-foot sharks about 150 feet off the shore, hunting their afternoons away. It was thrilling, as was landing our plane on the sand along the crashing waves. At Eli Creek, we finally got to strip down to our bathing suits and swim. This fresh water stream pours out of the rainforest dune onto the beach, so threats of sharks and stingers do not exist. That night, we dined at Seabelle within the resort, sampling a dish of kangaroo, crocodile and emu. When in Rome, right? The kangaroo was fantastic. It’s a very lean meat, sort of like a really great steak. The crocodile and emu… uhhh… don’t need to try those again!
The next day, we decided to venture out on our own in a Landcruiser rented at Aussie Trax. After watching a 30-minute video on beach driving safety, we were handed a map and a set of keys. Driving the sand roads, often covered with thick tree roots, was a blast. Our map led us to a spot where we hiked over a giant sand dune to Lake Wabby (where you’ll feel like Lawrence of Arabia), then to the white-sanded Lake Birrabeen. After our day out on the island, we turned in our keys that evening and caught the last ferry back to Hervey Bay where we spent the night in the beautiful Grand Mercure Allegra Apartments. Hervey Bay is its own destination, apart from nearby Fraser Island. From mid-July to early November, the majestic humpback whale has made Hervey Bay a regular stop on its annual migration to Antarctica after giving birth in the warm waters of north Queensland.
The gorgeously posh Grand Mecure Allegra apartments on Hervey Bay
The next morning, we caught the first direct flight from Hervey Bay to Sydney. But before we could get into Mardi Gras-party-mode, we had one last adventure to tackle about two hours outside of the city. So, the next morning we caught a 6:30am commuter train to Katoomba, the base town for Blue Mountain exploration. The views from this train as it winds through the towns outside of Sydney into the Blue Mountains makes the Long Island Railroad seem like a disaster on wheels. As the elevation changes and the mountains come in sight, I learned where the Blue Mountains got their name. On sunny days, microscopic droplets of oil from the eucalyptus leaves in the forest evaporate in the heat. When sunlight refracts off these droplets, it creates a misty blue haze that hangs in the valleys. Our day was spent at the bottom of one of these valleys, through a tour that we had booked with River Deep, Mountain High. We spent the morning learning how to abseil (repel) and then graduated to an afternoon of canyoning. River Deep, Mountain High also brings willing tourists on photo safaris, rock climbing excursions, river rafting, mountain biking and bush walking tours.
A “behind the bush” look of Australia’s infamous, Blue Mountains
During the morning hours, we positioned ourselves on a cliff overlooking the famed Three Sisters rock formation across the valley. We first learned how to repel over a 15-foot drop, and then graduated to 30 feet, then 60. After lunch, we jumped in the van, drove 20 minutes down the road and pulled into a parking lot where we packed up our repelling gear into rubber-lined backpacks along with our helmets and wetsuits. After hiking to the bottom of the canyon, we donned our wetsuits, popped on the helmets and stepped into our harnesses. Then, we jumped into the icy water and began our half-hour trek between the canyon walls. At the first pool jump, my jaw dropped. The sensation of throwing myself blindly into the black water of a pool at the bottom of a rock-faced canyon, then scrambling to climb out the other end only to turn around and watch my friend repeat the action, was unforgettable. Jon and I looked at each other several times along the trek in amazement at what we were actually doing. Back in the States, this is the sort of fun you could only have after days of training and signing your life away, with lawyers present. There were moments along the trek when I looked at Jon and I didn’t need to utter the words, “WHAT are we DOING?” as his expression said the same thing.
An action shot of canyoning. Woohoo!
At the end of the canyon, the river poured over the edge of a 100-foot waterfall. At the top of the falls, a metal spike stuck out of the rock. Our guide quickly rigged the spike with ropes, hooked Jon’s harness and sent him backwards over the edge. When I stood at the top of the waterfall before lowering myself over, I can’t explain the feeling. At one point midway down, I let go of my harness, relying fully on our guide at the top to hold on. I arched my back, looked over my head and gazed at the rainforest canopy above, dangling from the ropes attached to my waist. The freezing waterfall fell across my face and body and I thought to myself, “This is AMAZING!!” It sounds corny, but I haven’t felt that alive in a really long time. After plunging the last 15 feet into the pool at the bottom, I swam out and ripped off the wetsuit to change into my dry clothes. I drank some hot water from our thermos to warm up, sat down on a rock and soaked in my endorphin rush to appreciate what I had accomplished. It was the highpoint of the trip and the perfect end to our adventure through Australia. I was now ready for Mardi Gras!