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  • Jennifer

30 Days Down Under: 5 Australian Cities from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney harbor

Updated: Jun 22

Australia has always been on our travel wish list, but the long flight time from the US was a deterrent. So, when we were in Japan and a 7.25 hour flight from Tokyo to Cairns, we knew this was our opportunity to head down under!

Australia is BIG, so there was no way we could do the entire country in one month. Instead, we decided to focus on the east coast, starting with Joe's bucket list: The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Quick flights between five different towns/cities would let us see the ocean, beaches, and major cities. Off we go!

Cairns, Queensland

Located on the tropical north east coast of north Queensland, Cairns is home to two UNESCO world heritage sights that we couldn't wait to visit, and two distinctly different experiences. The first, the Great Barrier Reef, is the world's largest coral reef and is comprised of over 3000 individual reef systems and coral rays. The other, Daintree rainforest, has survived for millions of years.

The town of Cairns is a typical seaside destination, with lots of restaurants along the water's edge and activities that center around the stunning blue views. The town was fine enough, but we couldn't wait to see what lived below the surface, so we found a dive shop and signed up for a day of SCUBA diving. The boat ride to the reef was gorgeous, but when we finally put on the wet suits and tanks, we really got an eyeful!

The transparent water meant we could see so many fish of every color! We went on three dives and enjoyed lunch on the boat while staring out at the water and not much else around us except the outline of the reef beneath the surface. If you're a seafaring person and know how to SCUBA dive, this is the place to go. It was everything we imagined and more! Bucket list destination accomplished.

With a great barrier reef dive complete, it was time to head to the rainforest and my priority for our visit to Cairnsa visit to the mountain village of Kuranda where we'd get up close and personal with kangaroos and koalas. We took the Kuranda Scenic Railway along forested hills, on a route carved out by early settlers. It was beautiful and a great way to approach the village of Kuranda in a most old fashioned way.

Once we reached our destination we visited the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, which was extraordinary—it's the largest butterfly flight aviary in the country. Watching the colorful butterflies land on our shoulders and heads was so much fun! Then it was on to Rainforestation Nature Park where we learned about Pamagirri Aboriginal culture, watched a Pamagirri Aboriginal dance performance, and even got to try our hand at slinging boomerangs (but not the spears the Pamagirri demonstrated). Boomerangs are hard!

And was time to meet and hold the koala, which was such a thrill. We wanted to take him home with us! Then it was on to see the kangaroos and other wildlife, some cuter than others. We even got to see a Tasmanian Devil, and it was real, not a cartoon!

At the end of the day we took the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway down from Kuranda, a gondola ride that soars high above the world's oldest tropical rainforest and over the Barron Gorge National Park and Barron Falls. This 90-minute ride has a few stops, so we got out and explored the rainforest and the rivers and then got back on and kept going. It was the perfect day and we would leave Cairns happy that this was our first taste of Australia.

Next up: A 75-minute flight to the next beach town on our down under itinerary, Airlie Beach.

Airlie Beach, Queensland

If Cairns was all about the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest, Airlie is about the beaches. As our plane descended we knew we were in for a special weekthe colors were mind-boggling from the air and we couldn't wait to see them in person.

Known as a place of eternal summer, this consummate beach town was laid back and relaxing. Our Airbnb was atop a hill with spectacular views of the water and a hot tub, not that we needed more heat, it was October and that's just about summer down under so it was plenty warm and sunny.

Every day we woke to birds singing, the sight of sailboats bobbing on their moorings, and clear blue skies, perfect for getting out on the water and exploring.

We decided on an all-day boat ride through the Whitsundays, mounds of pristine green islands sitting on the surface of the sea. Although it was a beautiful sail, we couldn't wait to get to our destinationWhithaven beach. Accessible only by boat, seaplane, or helicopter, Whithaven beach is special for several reasons, not that it needs more than one: It is spectacular. This 7km beach is made up of sand that is 98% pure tiny silica beads. That makes it blindingly white and incredibly fine. It also means it never gets hot because the sand doesn't retain the heat from the sun. We spent time in the water, watched the stingrays swim around our feet, and marveled at the view. Visiting Australia and not going to Whithaven beach would be a serious miss.

After our daytrip we wanted more time on the water so we went on a jet ski tour of the Whitsundays, which was lots of fun and gave us a completely different view of the islands.

Like Cairns, there isn't much to do here except enjoy the water and the scenery, and that was just fine with us because after two weeks soaking up the sun and sea we were heading to our first city: Brisbane, a ninety minute flight from Airlie Beach.

Brisbane, Queensland

Brisbane is the capital of Queensland, and

although it is a large city, its location on the Brisbane River and the South Bank cultural area make it feel completely accessible and easy and not at all intimidatingyou can do typical city things and then walk along the river and feel like you're far away, and there's even a beach!

Our "city" activities included visiting the Queensland Art Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art, which were wonderful and worth a visit, and hanging out around the South Bank Parklands.

This riverfront area is a hub of activity and a great place to have a picnic and watch everything going on around you (which is exactly what we did). There are tons of restaurants and bars, so go hungry! We even made a friend, a lizard who decided to hang out with us while we picnicked lots of lizards here!

Un-city-like activities we enjoyed included walking through the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, located on Mt. Coot-tha overlooking the city, and strolling along the Brisbane Riverwalk. The riverwalk takes you from New Farm to the Howard Street Wharves and then to the central business district. We decided to walk, but you can easily rent bikes and ride the riverwalk instead.

After getting a taste for our first Australian city, it was time for a two hour flight to our second: Melbourne.

Melbourne, Victoria

The capital of the Australian state of Victoria, Melbourne is the second largest city in the country. We started exploring the city by visiting the Royal Botanic Garden,

which was not only gorgeous but also gave us some beautiful views of the city. Then it was on to Queen Victoria Market, a bustling market with more than 600 businesses, from specialty food to unique products. With so much to choose from, it was a great place for lunch and a long browse to walk it off.

We'd rented a Go Boat in Copenhagen, so when we discovered we could rent one in Melbourne and traverse the Yarra river, we were in! We packed a picnic and spent a few hours seeing the city from the water and under the bridges. After our cruise we topped off the day with cocktails in the center of the river at Ponyfish Island. We even got to watch local crew teams practice from an amazing vantage point, they glided right past us on all sides.

We learned about fantastic cocktail bars in Melbourne so we decided to devote one day to our own little cocktail bar crawl. We started with Caretaker's Cottage, a cocktail bar inside a church caretaker’s former home. Wow, it was inventive and delicious... a snail shell garnish on your drink? They have it here! Try the Whale and the Snail if you like gin.

From there we visited other (sometimes hidden) cocktail bars including Whiskey and Alement, One or Two (in the heart of Melbourne’s Chinatown), Apollo Inn, and one of the most unique bars we've ever discovered, Byrdi. Named one of the world's best bars, Byrdi has its own lab for creating bold new ingredients, and we were lucky enough to get a tour of the lab and learn about their distillates, which comprise a menu that changes seasonally and includes three categories: seasonal creations, ferments, and highballs. It was amazing! Find all of the cocktails we enjoyed and recipes on Instagram at Worldwide.Cocktails.

From Melbourne we were flying to the capital of Australia, Sydney, a quick 1.25 flight away. Our month in Australia was coming to an end and we couldn't wait to see what our last stop would offer!

Sydney, South Wales

Ah, Sydney! Our last stop and the end of our month in Australia. What an amazing city. The moment you see the Sydney Opera House perched on the water, you know you're somewhere special. The thing about Sydney is that it's a world class city and yet, at the same time, it feels like an outdoor wonderland. The water, the ferries that take you to islands nearby, not to mention the gardens and parks right in the city, it's pretty much the perfect city—if you love amazing weather, stunning views, great food, and super shopping.

We decided to start by exploring the area around the opera house, which led us to the Royal Botanic Gardens and a beautiful lunch spot in an oasis in the heart of the city. We lounged among the flowers and trees and it was hard to believe the city of Sydney was just around the corner! Definitely a spot to visit.

Another lovely spot is Sandringham Memorial Garden and Fountain in Hyde Park. Sandringham Gardens sit on the eastern side of the park, and it's a wonderful place to stroll just a few streets away from the incredible shopping district. It's a little respite in the big city. It's also where you'll find the Anzac War Memorial, both a work of art and a remarkable piece of architecture that commemorates, and is dedicated to, the service and sacrifice of Australians in peace and war. Absolutely worth spending some time there.

We wanted to visit a museum, and we chose the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In addition to being housed in a beautiful building, the museum offered a diverse collection of art, from modern and contemporary to older pieces. If you look forward to visiting a museum but only want to choose one, this is a great selection.

The opera house seemed to always be a spot we gravitated toward during our visit, so we decided to see if we could attend a concert. Besides being a gorgeous architectural feat,

the building's sail-like structures are made up of three groups of interlocking vaulted "shells" that have resulted in the structure being considered one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century. Lucky for us, Peruvian operatic tenor Juan Diego Flórez was making his Sydney debut during our stay and we immediately bought tickets. The show was amazing, with several standing ovations, and seeing the inside of the opera house in action was an experience that shouldn't be missed. We enjoyed a great dinner (and oysters) harborside before the show for a truly memorable evening.

With so much to do in Sydney, it can be tempting to just stay in the city but you'd be missing part of what makes the city so great—the surrounding areas. Ferries can take you to so many places, and we decided to visit Manley Beach, the site of world's first surfing contest in 1964.

This scenic ferry ride was also a great way to see Sydney from the water. Upon arrival, we walked the beach, visited cute shops and restaurants, and, because we were there the day of the Melbourne Cup, got to experience this iconic thoroughbred horse race in a popular sports bar with lots of fans gathered to watch the action on big screens while drinking ice cold Aussie beer. We wanted to wager a bet but couldn't figure out all the options, so instead we just cheered on the horses with our favorites names. And didn't win. But, even without a winning pick, Manley Beach is a perfect day trip.

Another great day trip was a ferry ride to Gap Park. Not only is there a gorgeous cliff walk with staggering views of the ocean on one side, you can also see Sydney Harbor in the distance on the other.

There is an easy bus system here, so we caught the bus to Bondi Beach, one of Australia's most iconic beaches. The surf was loaded with surfers and the countless bars and shops were bustling. We ate lunch at Icebergs, a restaurant overlooking the waves sweeping the white sand on the crescent beach. Quite the view!

Of course, no trip to Sydney is complete without a German beer hall dinner (OK, not really but we couldn't resist). When we discovered Munich Brauhaus, an authentic German beer hall, we decided to give it a try, and we weren't the only ones because the place was packed! In addition to a band of Lederhosen-clad men playing Bavarian music, they had a drinking contest that we just knew Joe would excel at.

The rules were simple: be the first to fire down an entire liter of German lager, turn the empty glass over your head, all without spilling a drop!

The competitors (all less than half Joe's age) stood ready with youthful confidence but when Joe's beer disappeared in seconds there was no doubt who was victorious and the winner of the coveted Bavarian pretzel necklace! A very tasty pretzel and the beer was free! A fitting end to our time in Sydney.

Our experience in this incredibly unique city exceeded our expectations, from the food to the sights to the sheer number of things to do (no, we didn't climb the Sydney bridge, Joe did that a few years ago and didn't need to do it again). It's like a vibrant city and a laid back beach town all in one, which makes it impossible to be bored or to stress out.

We are big fans of Sydney, and as we left this beautiful country to spend the next month in New Zealand, we looked back at the varied experiences Australia had to offer and were so glad we (finally) made the trip! Although we didn’t get to visit the entire country, and there is so much more to experience in Western Australia, with such a variety of places to go and things to do and see, down under is indeed is a place of wonder!

Come along on our next adventure! Follow us on Instagram (Worldwide.Wizas) and Subscribe to our blog today!

Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.


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