Australia is a wild land, but an orderly one. It’s only an oxymoron until you see a rugged landscape with discreet yet well-kept trails, and tropical foliage overflowing from city gardens with not a piece of garbage in sight. Traveling with my other half and another couple, we found this down-to-earth approach to nature’s epic offerings entirely fitting. In our drive from Noosa Heads to Sydney, we embraced the casual grandeur of Australia’s majestic Pacific coast.
We drove through a maze of streets, curved and unpredictable, influenced by the twisting Brisbane River that cuts back and forth across the city before heading to the sea. Home was an Australian craftsman style cottage on a quiet side street in West End, a neighborhood known for its enticing shops and restaurants
The next day was spent in Noosa Heads, a beach resort town that reminds me distinctly of a more rugged Santa Barbara. Surfers changed by their cars as happy couples walked by with purchases from high end local artisans. Rocky cliffs jutted up from white sand beaches, while flowering trees sprouted from every possible nook. In Noosa Heads National Park, we walked the meandering path that hugs the jagged coastline and took in the beautiful sights of the Sunshine Coast.
For lunch, we enjoyed a picnic on the beach of a small cove. Despite the crowds of joggers and vacationing families along the path, we were alone for our meal. As we sat mesmerized by the surfers and rolling waves, a raven stole our lunch of meat pies. It sat just out of reach on a tree, laughing at us in such a good-natured way that I couldn’t help but smile, even if I was a bit hungry. The spirited bird exhibited a straightforward playfulness we found common throughout our trip. In fact, Australia is the first country I’ve visited that I would describe as having a sense of humor. I often found myself chuckling at town names, signs, and the amiable jokes from a stranger.
Back in Brisbane the following morning, we explored the treasure trove of antique shops in the neighborhood of Paddington. Clothing, WWII memorabilia, jewelry, house wares and more filled every corner. Despite shopping for hours, we didn’t see all there was to see. In between shops, brilliantly colored parrots hopped from bush to bush. I admit to making a fool of myself and taking far too many photos of what, to Australians, is a very common sight.
That afternoon, we walked down to the local farmer’s market in Davies Park. Fresh luscious produce piled to bursting from booths. A seafood vendor did brisk business from buckets of freshly caught fish glittering on ice and Francesca bought several huge prawns for a traditional Australian Christmas dish. We stopped at a vegetarian food vendor, cleverly called YKILLAMOOCOW, for delicious samosas.
Though fond of our hosts and their fair city, it was time to begin the next leg of our adventure. We rented a car and drove south along the main highway. City gave way to suburbs, which softened into sprawling cattle ranches and green rolling hills. Just two hours in, we found ourselves in beloved Byron Bay, having secured the last room in the entire town.
For Americans unused to Boxing Day, our first hours maneuvering through the famous beach town were disorienting and the area was overcrowded. Think of it like unwittingly stumbling into The Grove in Los Angeles on Black Friday. However, the natural charm innate within all seaside communities soon set us at ease as we made our way to the main attraction. The beach was wide and welcoming, and people from all nationalities stretched out on colorful blankets to soak in the sun. We could wade far into the warm turquoise waters before having to swim. A little further out, surfers glided on shallow white capped waves.
It was here in this favorite Aussie getaway that I tried my first Aussie Burger: all the regular trimmings plus generous slices of beet and pineapple. It’s a combination I would have never dreamed up myself, but deep sweetness mixes with tangy and salty in an unforgettable way. I have recreated it in my own kitchen since then and each time brings me back to salty air and the call of kookaburras.
We spent a few days exploring the different beaches of Byron Bay, listening to live music and sampling the local cuisine. As we reluctantly checked out of our hotel, the man behind the desk danced slowly and enthusiastically to unheard music, his tight Madonna shirt showing off surfer muscles. He was surprised at our short stay, admonishing in a languid, sing-song voice “You’ll wish you’d stayed longer!”
He was completely right, but once again the road called to us. On advice from a local, we kept south to Brooms Head, a protected beach with nearly 50 miles of unspoiled coastline. It is a twenty minute drive from the highway with only an exit sign as we approach the grandeur that awaited us. This was truly a hidden gem. Along the way we passed mobs of kangaroos contently grazing in fields, looking like a herd of deer.
A caravan camp bordered the shore, bestowing fantastic views to the families who lounged and laughed under colorful awnings. Children ran among the tents and trailers lined up like a city of nomads huddled around an oasis. The allure here, however, is the tidal lagoons and isolated stretches of sand and sea.
It was warm and incredibly windy as we strolled along the beach, stopping every so often to point out scuttling crabs and admire sand-dollars. Before long, we made our way to a steep hill with a wooden staircase that appeared to lead straight into the sky. We climbed to find a scene that took our breath away and a wind so strong we could lean far into it without fear of falling. A great expanse of ocean stretched out endlessly before us in wild majesty as wave after wave crashed thunderously into rocky cliffs.
I felt in awe of the power of the ocean and understood for a moment just how small I really was. Playing unreservedly in the steady gusts of wind, we were alone at the top of the cliff, invigorated by the natural wonders all around us. Hair tangled like never before, yelling into the gales of salt spray, I felt free.
After roaming through the orderly trails cut into tall, windswept reeds, it was time to continue our journey. Singing praises to our cousin- after a suggestion like Brooms Head, she became family to us all- we piled eagerly back into our car in search of her other recommendation, Waterfall Way. Cutting west from the ocean, Waterfall Way is known as one of Australia’s most scenic drives with seven national parks and boasting dozens of towering waterfalls, viewpoints, and wineries.
It should not have surprised me by this point, but each waterfall along the route is epic in both height and beauty. Wollomombi Falls drops a staggering 220 meters, while Crystal Shower Falls allows one to walk behind the cascading waters. Taking our time on short side trips to stretch our legs and breathe in the fresh, pungent, rainforest air, made for a relaxing excursion that just isn’t possible when in Hurried Tourist Mode. A lesson to remember.
Leaving the national parks behind us, we ventured into New South Wales’ verdant countryside where rainforest thins out to farmland. Immense clouds cast stark shadows on lush hills, sparkling every shade of green. We drove in awe of the rural paradise, though giggled every time we entered a town with a large sign proclaiming it to be a “Tidy Town.” In fact, Tidy Towns was established in 1968 to discourage littering and promote sustainable practices, but the nomenclature tickled us and we still refer to it.
Passing our second empty town, we came to understand just how deprived Americans are when it comes to time off. Signs on many storefronts proclaimed, “Happy Holidays! Closed from December 1st to January 16th”. An unheard of vacation back home! Just when we were weak from hunger, we found a small market to load up on supplies. As my companions located a bank, I walked through the abandoned city center and found a familiar red, white, and blue barber’s pole near a sign reading “Sweeny Todd Barber Shop”. Blessedly, it, too, was closed.
Sydney came upon us before we knew it, hidden from the highway by large forested hills before opening out abruptly onto the lively metropolis. We spent the evening near our hotel exploring Sydney’s Haymarket district. A fashion mall left me fully satisfied, though struggling to zip up my suitcase. For dinner we lured into a Korean BBQ restaurant by sultry singing and a lively lounge area.
With only one full day in Sydney, we made the decision to leave the car at the hotel and instead walk the streets in order to fully absorb the local atmosphere. Lovers of architecture will find plenty to admire in this eclectic and fascinating city. Ornate neo-Gothic buildings loaded down by gargoyles stand alongside modernist office complexes. Graceful statues and fountains can be found in the many parks dotting the downtown area, giving plenty of chances for sunlight to streak through.
The Royal Botanic Gardens led us through a large canopy of trees where fruit bats hung far above us and lazily stretched tremendous translucent wings. We exclaimed in surprise at the sight of the massive, unfamiliar creatures, taking as many pictures as we could before realizing there were hundreds of them all around. In the rose gardens, we took time to smell each variety until we could no longer distinguish any scents at all.
I rounded a hedge and, suddenly, it was there before me: Sydney Opera House. Instantly recognizable, the cultural icon’s white shells gleamed in the sunlight like a vision. As if to mark the solemn moment of a traveler reaching their long sought destination, an enormous white cockatoo plunged from the branches above me and soared out into the sky. We had arrived.