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
From Melbourne: Wildlife wonderland
Phillip Island (86 miles from Melbourne)
Fur and flipper are the stars of Phillip Island-tourists flock here by the thousands on weekends to see penguins and pandas in their natural habitat, whether it be an unspoiled range of mangrove wetlands, cliff-lined surf beaches or gum tree forests that are breathtakingly picturesque.
The highlights: Crowds pack the boardwalks every evening at dusk for Phillip Island's main event: the ever-popular Penguin Parade (03/5951 2800, .penguins.org.au/;adults $11.40, children $5.70). As the sun sinks over the ocean, visitors watch hundreds of Little Penguins, the world's smallest, waddle out of the waves after a day of fishing in the Bass Strait to their warrens in the dunes. At just 13 inches high, these cute little birds are the only penguins to breed on Australian mainland. Be sure to reserve your ticket for the Penguin Parade ahead on weekends, public holidays and in the summer, when Phillip Island is the busiest.
With only a handful of koalas left in the wild of Phillip Island, the best place to find them is at The Koala Conservation Centre (03/5956 8300, .penguins.org.au/; adults $6, children $3). This sanctuary of natural bushland, set up to help save the koala in 1991, provides exceptional koala viewing, especially on the raised boardwalk, a 20-minute loop which lets you see the tree-huggers in their homes. The late afternoon is the best time for self-guided koala spotting, or let the ranger be your guide on the Koala Eco Explorer tour and learn about the centre's efforts to protect these endangered creatures (daily at 3 pm, adults $4.25, children $1.75).
The island's southwest peninsula ends in bulbous, rocky headland called The Nobbies. At low tide, you can walk out to this outcropping via a craggy land bridge. It features fabulous views of the coastline and two offshore islands known as Seal Rocks. Don't forget your binoculars- you'll want to see the 12,000 Australian Fur Seals (the largest colony in the country) and thousands of silver gulls that call these isles home.
From Brisbane: Tropical/rainforest
The Gold Coast (31 miles from Brisbane)
For a day at the beach, nothing beats the Gold Coast, Australia's famed stretch of sugary white shoreline that goes on uninterrupted for 18 miles. Strips of cheap eats, motels and souvenir shops paralleling the sand are all part of the area's "beach town' kitsch, though overdevelopment has had its downsides (read: high-rises that cast a shadow over stretches of coast). Still, it's the natural beauty of the beaches, the pounding surf and the taste of rich green hinterland to be found not far ashore, that make the Gold Coast a worthy spot in the sun.
The highlights: Wide, flat and free to the public, the Gold Coast's beaches are its number one attraction. Buffered from encroaching condominiums by a low dune system, there are 35 beaches in total, though the Coast is actually just one beautiful, unbroken expanse of shoreline. All you have to do is pick a place to lay your towel, taking note of the red and yellow flags that indicate safe swimming conditions in the choppy Pacific.
Palm trees and sea oats thrive at Main Beach, on the north end of the Coast, where the buildings are set farther offshore and the atmosphere is more secluded. The view, looking south to the creamy shoreline curving into the rocky cliffs of Coolangatta (a popular surfing site), is relaxingly picturesque. Bronzed gods and beach bunnies flock south of Main to Surfer's Paradise (locals call it "Surfers'), the day and night pulse of the Gold Coast. If you like a crowded, active beach, this is your spot. Gold Coast Surfing School (07/5526 7077, .australiansurfer.com.au/) rents surfboards, body boards and wetsuits to those inclined to catch waves, as well as beach chairs and umbrellas for the sunbathers ($3.50-10.70 for an hour, $10.70-$28.50 for the day).
Enough of the beach? Well, wildlife-lovers will enjoy the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (07/5534 1266, .currumbin-sanctuary.org.au/; adults $16.40, children $10.70), a 67-acre wildlife park set in rolling green hinterland, 11 miles outside of Surfers. Home to over 1400 birds, mammals, and reptiles (including two huge saltwater crocodiles), Currumbin allows visitors to get hands-on with its inhabitants. You can feed colonies of kangaroos, have your picture taken holding a koala and toss fish to pelicans and wetland birds. Don't miss the chaotic Lorikeet feeding (held at 8am and 4pm), when hundreds of the rainbow-colored birds chirpily descend on tourists holding trays of seed. The Aboriginal song and dance show, held daily at 3:30 pm, is also worth seeing.