Explore Outdoor Australia in a Day (or Two)
Adding a hint of nature to your Australian city vacation is easy with these nicely-priced day trips
Let's face it: Australia is a big place. Planning a trip down under can be daunting, especially for the budget-conscious traveller. Humbled by the far-flung continent, most thrifty tourists give up touring Australia's natural side and stick to a city-based itinerary. But here's a hint: you don't have to trek all the way to The Outback to experience Australia's breathtaking and diverse natural wonders. Some of Oz's most spectacular outdoor experiences lie just a few hours outside of its popular cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. No extra flights or accommodations necessary-all it takes is a daytrip to see kangaroos and koalas in the wild, bushwalk along rugged mountain peaks, or perfect your tan on wide sandy beaches.
From Sydney: Up the mountain, down the dune
Excursion 1: The Blue Mountains (71 miles from Sydney)
Big city crowds and congestion fall away when approaching the striking, mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, home to a sprinkling of charming towns and lots of native wildlife. All manner of activities, from adventure sports to antiquing, abound, but the scenery alone is enough to attract visitors. Looking out at the dense stretches of green gum trees, uniquely craggy rock formations and waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs, it's easy to see why the Blue Mountains are a favorite high-altitude retreat for Sydneysiders.
The highlights: The best place to start your daytrip is Katoomba, the Blue Mountain's largest town and home to its most popular attraction, the Three Sisters.This unique triplet of pinnacles, named after an Aboriginal legend, rises 9900 feet from the floor of Jamison Valley south of town. A fun way to descend into Jamison is aboard the world's steepest Scenic Railway (02/4782 2699, .scenicworld.com.au/; $10/$5 roundtrip). The five-minute ride takes passengers down 1,361 ft. at a maximum incline of 52 degrees, paralleling a fern-strewn cliff face. At the bottom, a mile of boardwalk trails let visitors wind through the valley's ancient rainforest.
Just four miles outside of Katoomba, you'll find numerous craft and antiques shops in Wentworth Falls, but the real draw is the 922-ft. waterfall tumbling down rust-colored rock into Jamison Valley. If you brought hiking boots, you'll want to try one of the scenic (and at times strenuous) bushwalks that traverse the falls. There are over a dozen trails to choose from, though most agree the National Pass Walk, a two and a half-mile path that starts on the far side of the falls, is the best day-hike in the Blue Mountains. Paralleling overhanging rock faces on one side and sheer drops on the other, this five-hour trail offers amazing panoramas of Jamison Valley, before dipping down to the base of the falls, known as the Valley of the Waters. Climbing out again is a bit trying, but worth the soaring views.
Exursion 2: Port Stephens (131 miles from Sydney)
Some beaches are for sun worshippers, but its nature-loves that adore the crystal blue waters and sandy dune beaches of Port Stephens. More than twice the size of Sydney Harbour, beautiful Port Stephen's Bay is a prime spot to see underwater wildlife: boat cruises bring visitors closest to the 80 resident bottle-nosed dolphins, schools of colourful fish and, from May to October, thousands of migrating humpback, minke and southern right whales who call Port Stephens home. Once ashore, miles of flat shoreline, as well as one of the world's longest dune systems, await exploration.
The highlights: Boat cruises are a must. Visitors get the most dolphin for their dollar aboard the fun and informative "Sail with the Dolphins Island Discovery' cruise, run by popular outfitter Imagine (02/4984 9000, .portstephens.com.au/imagine). The four-hour cruise includes dolphin-watching, as well as snorkelling, lunch and a tour around the offshore islands, for a real steal: $35 for adults and $17.80 for children 4 to 14. Cruises departs daily at 10 am from December to March. From May 22nd to end of October, Imagine offers a three- to three and a half-hour "Whale & Dolphin Watch' for the same price, with two cruises daily at 10:05 am and 1:30 pm.
An awe-inspiring expanse of brilliant white sand, rippling and folding into the Pacific Ocean, the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes are the top must-see on land. You can take on this 12-mile dune system, the longest in the Southern Hemisphere, by foot from Anna Bay, a resort town on the north end of the Bight. Sahara Horse Trails (02/4981 9077) allows visitors to hoof it (literally) on a two-hour horseback ride through the dunes for $53.