Australia...The Perfect Two Week Itinerary
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Australia is a massive country, about the size of the continental United States. It is incredibly diverse and has lots to offer, but knowing where to spend your time can be difficult, especially if you only have two weeks. To begin, lets be honest, you can't realistically explore the whole country in two weeks, but we can hit the highlights! We came up with this itinerary after our vacation to Australia and realized what we did right and what we should have done instead. Hopefully this is of some help to you!
Lets start with the itinerary breakdown...
Day 1- Arrive Sydney
Day 2- Sydney / Bondi Beach/ Speedo Cafe
Day 3- Leave for Cairns / Botanical Garden / Prawn Star Restaurant
Day 4- Great Barrier Reef
Day 5- Kuranda Koala Gardens (hold Koalas!)/ Port Douglas/Hemmingway/Nautilus/Shopping
Day 6- Port Douglas / Daintree Rainforest / Mossman Gorge
Day 7- Alice Springs / Simpsons Gap / Telegraph Station
Day 8- Leave for Uluru (Ayers Rock) / Sounds of Silence
Day 9- Uluru (Ayers Rock) / The Olgas/Light show
Day 10- Darwin / Kakadu National Park
Day 11- Darwin / Kakadu National Park
Day 12- Sydney
Day 13 -Leave Sydney
*Note depending on where you are coming from, it can take quite a while getting to Australia. For example, we left Charleston, SC on the 29th of August and didn't land in Sydney until early on the morning of the 31st. Therefore, two days of our vacation was just flying to get there.
First things first, you will most likely fly into Sydney, although there are many international flights into Melbourne and Perth. We flew into Sydney as this was the easiest starting point for our time down under. Spend about two to three days here. There is plenty to do within the city, and the food culture is fantastic. Sydney is a beautiful city and reminded us of a cross between a European city with a Canadian vibe. The city was clean, safe and the people were very friendly and easy going.
We had a visit to the Taronga Zoo to get an up close view of some of Australia's fantastic wildlife before tying to find them out in the bush. To reach Taronga, you can take a water ferry from Sydney Harbor and it takes you right by the famous Opera House and Harbor Bridge.
We also spent some time wandering the streets of Sydney and found the light rail train system to be very easy to understand and navigate. We made our way out to Bondi beach after a train/bus combination and explored this famous white sand beach. Even tough it was early spring for Australia, there were still brave people swimming in both the open ocean and the unique ocean fed "Icebergs" pool.
For lunch, we stopped into Speedo's Cafe, which promotes itself as "The World's Most Instagramable Cafe" for some lunch. We opted to try out the Australian version of fish and chips, which is beer battered barramundi fillets with chips/fries and a softshell crab burger. The views looking back on Bondi beach while eating lunch outside were spectacular.
Darling Harbor in Sydney is famous for it's many shops, outdoor cafes and attractions like the Sydney Aquarium and Australian Maritime Museum. We spent an afternoon with our friends from Sydney at the aquarium and had lunch and an Australian beer at one of the many harbor side cafes overlooking the water.
After spending a couple days in Sydney, we flew up to Cairns international airport in Queensland. This part of Australia is tropical and humid year round, and it's home to some of Aussie's most famous wildlife. Our main focus of this segment was to scuba dive the great barrier reef off the coast, but we also wanted to see some the world's oldest rain forests north of Cairns. We started off by visiting the Cairns Botanic Gardens and walked among pristine tropical and native plants.
Cairns is built around tourism for the natural attractions surrounding the area, and while it is a wild place with lot's of native animals you also have a lot of the typical tourist bars, street performers and T-shirt shops. We wanted to try and restaurant that was unique to the area, so we settled on Prawn Stars, a local seafood joint that's actually on a fishing boat in the marina! We had the Jumbo Platter with prawns, salmon, oysters, tiger prawns and slipper lobster (affectionately named "bugs").
The Great Barrier Reef was going to be the highlight of the trip, and the day was finally here to go see this Wonder of the Natural World. It's about an hour and half boat ride from Cairns to reach the numerous reefs and islands. As soon as we anchored, the reef was visible in crystal clear water and thousands of fish swam around the boat and coral islands. We started out by snorkeling the shallow areas around the reef and the abundance of life and color was incredible. We then suited up for some scuba dives! We didn't go much further than about 60 feet in depth, but it was a once in a lifetime experience to sit on the sandy bottom of the great barrier reef and have a 360' view of the reef, like you were sitting in the most spectacular reef aquarium ever built.
After diving the Great Barrier Reef, we headed farther north into Queensland's tropical rain forests and beaches. Our first stop was the Kuranda Koala Gardens where you can interact and see many of Queensland's rare animals and birds. We we able to hold a koala, feed kangaroos, wallaby's and wombats! The bird aviary here is full of colorful parrots, cockatoos and even rare giant cassowary, and you can feed most!
We continued driving north through the Kuranda State Forrest and stopped at Ellis beach for some tacos and a beer. The beach is gorgeous, but you have to be very careful for saltwater crocodiles and jellyfish. Needless to say, we stayed out of the water that day.
After a short drive we made it to Port Douglas. We were really surprised at how nice this town was! It's one of the only places in the world where two world heritage sites meet (The Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Forrest). Port Douglas is very vibrant with lots of local artisan shops and restaurants, and it's small enough to spend an afternoon walking in town. One of the
highlights of our trip was an evening and dinner at the Nautilus restaurant. Tucked away in a an outdoor tropical oasis, you start the night with a short walk up through a hidden jungle path. We splurged for the seven course tasting menu with each dish prepared fresh with local ingredients and paired with an Australian wine. One of the best dining experiences we've ever had was even better when a few of the famous local bandicoots appeared just inches from our table! It's not often you get to eat under the rain forest canopy and stars, and the atmosphere here just can't be beaten.
While in the Port Douglas area of Queensland, we stayed at an Airbnb located out in the rain forest, giving a great spot to view local wildlife, and nice jumping off point for exploring the oldest rain forest in the world, Daintree and Mossman areas. Our Airbnb even had a shower outdoor in the jungle!
After driving along the Daintree river looking for wildlife and crocodiles (carefully), we spent the afternoon in the Mossman Gorge. Visitors can park at the Mossman Gorge Centre and take a short bus trip to the trails. Different sections of the trail intersect the river in many spots and it's possible to jump in and swim. It's very rare for crocodiles to be in this cooler fast moving water, so it's considered pretty safe. We hiked to the end and then hiked up among the large boulders in the river to find our our private swimming pool. We felt like we were the only people there, and we enjoyed a couple hours in the water and exploring the area. We heard a noise a few rock pools up, and expecting to find some local wildlife, we actually stumbled upon a French couple skinny dipping in a deep pool of the river! We made our way back to our secluded pool and enjoyed another Australian past time, drinking beers that have been kept cold in the river! Mossman Gorge was a stunning, primordial jungle full of birds and spectacular rocks and trees and should be on everyone's list of spots to visit in Queensland.
The Outback: Alice Springs and Uluru Kata Tjuta, Northern Territory!!
We flew from Cairns to Alice Spring airport and watched the gradual change in scenery during the flight from lush green forest to red rocky desert, foreshadowing what was in store for us next. Immediately after exiting the airport and getting our rental car, we were met by hundreds or pink and grey Galah cockatoos!
The area around Alice Springs is remote, dry and full of beautiful desert scenery. We visited the historic telegraph station and finally came across a wild kangaroo! To this point, we had seen hundreds of wallabies, but this was our first kangaroo. The area around the telegraph station had many walking trails and gorgeous birds and parrots perching in the eucalyptus trees all around us.
While we enjoyed are time around Alice Springs, the town is not without some small set backs. It has a reputation for being a frontier town with some rough edges, which is fitting if that's your idea of the rugged Australian outback. We never felt a threat of grave harm, but we were targeted several times by purse thieves and had insults yelled at us a couple times (for being foreigners). This fact helped influence our decision to only stay one night. We were actually advised by our hotel and some locals at a pub to not venture out after dark. While we witnessed a lot of public drunkenness, we were told it gets much worse in town at night. We still had the time to stop in town at a local pub straight out of Crocodile Dundee movies for a cold beer. While not quite "Walkabout Creek Pub", we walked through the swinging doors of Bo's saloon and felt like we had stepped into a true local "outback" experience. There were some locals that were very enthusiastic to speak with a couple of Americans and we had a blast swapping stories. There were also a lot of local Aboriginal people in the back of the place, which lead to some interesting encounters. A priority of ours in going to Australia was to try and learn and witness as much as we could about Australian Aboriginal people's culture. We asked the bartender if the group in the bar would be offended if two tourists walked over and purchased a round of beers to hopefully have a conversation. We were shocked when he told us to stay away! It then became obvious to me that while we might find their culture and history fascinating, we weren't invited. And their culture was just that, theirs. It wasn't a thing for tourist's curiosities, no matter how well-intentioned it was. So we didn't introduce ourselves. What made this worse was the fact that several blatant attempts to steal Kate's purse occurred from a couple members of the group were wanted to speak with! To the point of actually grabbing the purse and attempting to run off! Fortunately it was wrapped around her shoulder, but we were pretty saddened by the events. After so many attempts, the bartender removed the offending individual who then unleashed a tirade of curses and insults at us as they were being ejected. On a positive note, as Americans, being cursed out is always way cooler by someone with a great accent! When we lift the bar, the same group of people that accosted us in the bar were congregating outside, so we thought it best to head back to our hotel. Fortunately we did get to learn more about Australian Aboriginal culture later on near Uluru.
Simpson's Gap in the West MacDonnell Range was the next stop along the road. Around 18 kilometers outside of Alice Springs, it was a short drive to to get to this recreational area with a permanent waterhole and towering red cliffs. The waterhole attracts a lot wildlife and we were lucky to spot two black footed rock wallaby's hoping up and down the huge boulders as we walked the gap. The seemed a bit surprised to see us, and they stopped hopping for a few seconds to stare at us before disappearing into the cracks. Simpson's Gap was full of white gum tree's providing much needed shade from the scorching sun and we spotted several bird species and some dingo tracks.
Now it was time to finish the four hour drive through the outback and visit a lifelong goal, Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock). The road trip was a unique experience have, but most of the way is pretty desolate, so be prepared. We never encountered another car during our drive, but we did pass a few iconic outback "Road Trains" which are semi trucks with up to three trailers being towed at once. These pack a massive air pressure wave when flying by you at 70mph, so be ready! There were only a couple gas stations along the way, and we stopped at The Emu bar to try out some kangaroo steaks for lunch! They were great, and we also spotted some emu's roaming close by.
As the road trip progressed, we were finally getting closer to Uluru. It was an amazing site to see off on the far distance as it is truly a massive rock monolith. It's truly stunning to witness in person, and the rocks change colors subtly during different times of the day from deep red, to intense oranges. The only real tourist option around the area is the small town of Yulara. The Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara was created as a tourist complex in the 1980's after the government decided to consolidate or close the areas hotels and camp sites due to their detrimental effect on the area. In effect, it's now the only place you can stay in the area and it's options range from camp sites to mid-range hotel rooms to high profile luxury suites.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta!
We were really excited to explore the area and we had arranged some excursions through the Ayers Rock Resort. Since you're a bit of a captive audience without any choice in lodging or dining other than the resort, it was a bit pricy. It's also located about 20km from Uluru itself, so I recommend keeping your rental car, or renting one from the Ayers Rock airport. You're allowed to pay the park entrance fee in private vehicles and this allows entrance into both Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) for three days at a cost of $65. The first night we were blown away by the dinner experience offered in the "Sounds of Silence", a dinner and wine tasting event set on a remote sand dune over looking Uluru combined with local didgeridoo artists and an astronomer with a high powered telescope. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and that's a good thing as it's a bit expensive at $229 per person!
Uluru itself is a magnificent massive natural rock formation that dominates the landscape. It's such a unique place that people have been drawn to it for thousands of years, and it is a sacred place to the native Aboriginal people of the area. It was open for climbing while we were there (It has since been permanently restricted), but given it's very steep incline and out of respect for the wishes of the Aboriginal people, we chose to not climb it. Instead we spent the day walking the grounds around it and witnessed the thousands of Zebra finches that flocked from gum tree to bush. There are pretty well defined informal trails around Uluru, and it will take you around 4 hours to walk around the entire structure!
Once you've finished admiring the fantastic scenery of Uluru, you can take a short road trip of around 25 minutes drive to Kate Tjuta (formerly the Olgas Range). These spectacular formations are somewhat similar to Uluru, but instead of one large formation, Kata Tjuta has many rounded dome rock formations. This area is also sacred to the native people, and it was the inspiration of many Pitjantjatjara Dreamtime legend associated with the area, especially the giant snake king Wanamabi, said to descend from the summit of Mt Olga during the dry season. While we didn't see the giant snake king, we did encounter a couple different species of snakes with there, and in Australia, it's generally best to admire these from a safe distance. Exploring the many trails that wind through canyons flanked with tall cliff walls providing much needed shade is great way to spend an afternoon.
That evening we planned to visit the Field of Lights exhibit from artist Bruce Munro, a spectacular display of ever changing colored light bulbs spread over a vast area. But first, we wanted to try an BBQ like the locals, and the Ayers Rock Resort offers this option, complete with outdoor grills and a picnic seating areas at The Pioneer BBQ & Bar. Overall, food is fairly expensive in Australia (as compared to American costs in most cities), but it is considerably more expensive here. A domestic 6-pack of beer may cost upward of $40 and a Kangaroo skewer around $28. We opted for a beef steak and kangaroo skewer. It was a fun experience, but the resort also offers a few other restaurant options (and all of them are fairly expensive).
The last stop was the Field of Light outdoor exhibit near the base Uluru. You take a short bus ride to the grounds, and there are only a few time slots available for purchase to control the number of people in the exhibit at one time. This was an amazing experience and we were memorized walking through the vast exhibit surrounded by thousands of illuminated bulbs that subtly changed color in mass while pulsing interconnected light connected each bulb to the other. It's a unique experience that shouldn't be missed and currently costs $44 per person. Pictures cannot due it justice!
We stayed in the Desert Gardens area of Ayers Rock Resort where all rooms have a view of Uluru. We loved sitting on our balcony and watching the sunrise and sunsets change the colors and landscape. At night we could sometimes here dingo's calling in the distance. It was on the expensive side, with regular rates starting at $470 per night, but found a special for a three night stay that lowered the rate a good bit. Overall, we would recommend at most two nights in the Uluru area. After a while, you begin to feel confined to the resort without much of an option for too many other activities that weren't very expensive. One note, we finally did get to experience some of the local Aboriginal culture as the resort offered free sessions with locals from the area tribe that spoke about traditional bush foods and gathering techniques.
While we loved the outback, we would recommend heading further up in the Northern territory and exploring Kakadu National Park near Darwin. On our next trip, we will be sure to add this leg to our itinerary.
Where We Stay: Pier One Sydney Harbour, Autograph Collection. Fantastic hotel, one of our favorites. Walking distance to opera house, waterfront and Darling Harbour. Excellent and friendly staff, fantastic rooms.
Doubletree Cairns, On the Cairns esplanade, walking distance to most things in Cairns.
AirBnB: Both in Port Douglas and Cairns.
Ayers Rock Resort, Uluru. Desert Gardens Inn. Expensive, but very nice with views of Uluru.
Where We Eat: Pony Dining The Rocks, Sydney. Amazing Seafood and drinks. Moderately priced.
The Grounds of Alexandria, Sydney. Local place with lots of outdoor seating, with exceptional local food and craft cocktails. Moderately priced.
Speedo's Cafe, Bondi Beach. Great for brunch and fish and chips. Very picturesque setting. Great pricing.
Aqua S, Sydney. Small craft ice cream shop that specialize in over the top sundae toppings.
Ganbaranba Ramen, Cairns. Small spot with Ramen at great prices.
Prawn Stars, Cairns. Unique restaurant on a fishing trawler in the harbor. Great seafood, a bit expensive.
Nautilus, Port Douglas. Upscale one of a kind outdoor dining with an amazing menu. Expensive, but worth it.
Bo's Saloon, Alice Springs. Old frontier style outback pub with typical pub food. Great prices.
The Pioneer BBQ, Yulara. Choose your meat and grill. Exotic choices like kangaroo and crocodile. Moderately priced.
Sounds of Silence, Yulara. Diner and drinks on a remote sand dune with sunset views of Uluru, on sight astronomer an didgeridoo music performance. Expensive, but worth it.
Arnguli grill, Yulara. Grilled steaks and local dishes. Moderately priced.
Gecko's Grill, Yulara. Lunch fair, sandwiches and burgers. Moderately priced.
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