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.
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.