The view of Sydney Harbour from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, in the Royal Botanic Garden
Kangaroo feeding time at the Hunter Valley Zoo
LESSONS FROM THE OUTBACK
Skip: Ayers Rock; it sees a half-million tourists a year; four-hour flight from Sydney Do: Chillagoe; easier Outback access, and a population of just 350
Every afternoon at about 4 p.m. in the Chillagoe Hotel Motel, owner Ray Neary assumes his perch on a bar stool by the entrance and waits to greet his clientele. First come the wild peacocks, who usually show up once Neary tosses them a few leftover scraps from lunch. Soon after, almost everyone else in Chillagoe, Queensland (population: 350), files in to take the birds’ place. Off-duty hands from the cattle station, miners from the nearby gold quarries, a few aboriginal men in jeans—they all come to eat Frisbee-size steaks with drafts of XXXX (pronounced “fourex”), the Queensland state beer. The wood-paneled walls are lined with posters of Australian rugby teams, and the jukebox plays (no joke) Men at Work’s "Land Down Under." “Everyone thinks you have to go out in the middle of nowhere, fly all the way to Ayers Rock or something, to find the Outback,” Neary says. “But this”—he slams his palm on the pine bar—“is the real deal, and it’s a heck of a lot closer to civilization.”
Now, that’s what you might call a real Outback steak house, and if it doesn’t exactly look like you’d expect—peacocks instead of kangaroos, XXXX instead of Foster’s—maybe that’s because Americans have been playing by the wrong Aussie rules. Many tourists heading Down Under get stuck in a sort of Australian triangle between the country’s three most popular sites: Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Ayers (which the locals call Uluru)—despite the fact that it takes three intra-country flights to do it all. Not that there’s anything wrong with the triangle trip. Australia is halfway around the world for everything this side of New Zealand, and no one wants to save up all the necessary time and money and miss the greatest hits.
But what if you like going your own way, skipping the usual, packaged-tour suspects in favor of something more authentic? Could you plan a vacation to Australia with substitutions that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve missed the boat? No Ayers Rock. No Sydney Harbour Bridge climb. No Great Ocean Road. It’s a tempting idea: fewer crowds, lower cost, plus a genuine Aussie sense of adventure. It’s also pretty fraught: How will you feel when your friends back home ask to see photos of Ayers Rock and you say—well, actually, check out these great shots from Chillagoe!
Five years ago, before social media connected everyone in a near-endless network of friends of friends of kinda-sorta-friends, pulling off a no-tourist tour might not have worked. You could study up before you left and make educated guesses about decent alternates, but you’d still be traveling largely by the guidebook. Now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, anyone and her mother can get insider tips from locals—new “friends” you made via that old neighbor’s ex-roommate who spent a year abroad in Sydney.
That’s the only way you’re going to find yourself in the likes of Chillagoe, an all-around charming town, from the peacock lunch-guests at the Chillagoe Hotel Motel (Tower St., 011-61/7-4094-7168, steaks from $14) to the limestone caves in nearby Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, where there are 30,000-year-old aboriginal rock-wall paintings. It sits just past a string of coffee and sugar-cane plantations on the west side of the Great Dividing Range, and it’s dotted with turn-of-the-century buildings, such as the Chillagoe Guesthouse, a six-room inn housed in the town’s original 1906 post office (16-18 Queen St., doubles from $124, including breakfast). Can any of this compete with majestic Ayers Rock in terms of eye candy? Probably not. That’s the thing about icon-free traveling: It’s about trade-offs. As many as a half-million people visit Uluru every year. It’s a four-hour flight from Sydney, and once you’ve seen it—well, you’ve seen it. There’s not much else to do. Chillagoe, on the other hand, gets a couple thousand visitors annually and you can make it there from Cairns—a North Queensland base camp—in less than three hours by car. “We get a lot of Aussie visitors from the coast,” says Eugene Miglas, the owner of Chillagoe Guesthouse, “but I don’t think Chillagoe’s on the radar for most international tourists yet.”
Three Aussie booking tools that put the icons within reach.
HOTELS: Wotif.comlists four- and five-star properties at about half price. In Sydney, for instance, suites with kitchenettes at Mantra 2 downtown typically go for $258, but on Wotif, you'd pay just $137.
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