Last summer we let our 14-year-old choose where to go on our summer trip. We gave him only one rule: he couldn’t recreate a trip we’d already been on. He chose Australia for two main reasons:
- He wanted to go to a new continent (his 5th)
- He wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef before it disappears (depressing, yes, but he had recently watched the documentary Chasing Coral)
I had been to Australia one summer in High School when my dad lived there, and Mike & I went again shortly after we were married. I knew we’d retrace our steps somewhat on this trip (can’t visit Sydney without seeing the Opera House!!), but I was also determined to steer my son in some new directions. That ended up being quite easy because as it turns out when there are 16 years between trips, and you add 3 kids to the mix, interests change.
And let’s just quickly talk about the weather. Whenever we mentioned we were going to Australia for our American summer, we would hear “Oh, you know it will be winter in Australia?” Yes, we knew and still wanted to go. Winter in Australia is mild, similar to winter in San Francisco where we’re from. We were fine in sweatshirts or a rain jacket most of the time, and up in Queensland it was in the 70s and we wore shorts. We ran into many people in Sydney wearing big boots, wool hats, scarves, and knee-length coats apologizing for the abnormally cold weather (low-mid 60s during the day). We were a little confused because again, we were fine in sweatshirts (and I always run cold!)
We broke up our long flight from San Francisco with a 4-day stopover in Fiji (more on that stopover coming soon!). We flew direct from San Francisco to Fiji on Fiji Airways and then continued to Sydney 4 days later, again on Fiji Airways. We arrived in Sydney at noon and were eating lunch in Barangaroo by 1pm.
One thing I learned last year on our trip to Asia is that the Marquez Five do much better on morning flights. It is best for us to get up (very early if we have to), grab breakfast at our hotel or at the airport and then fly to our destination ideally arriving around time for lunch. Yes, I plan our flights around meals. I also like to arrive at our destination with time to explore and get our bearings. However, sometimes this just isn’t possible given available flights.
We stayed at the Langham Sydney located in the historic Rocks District. We had a 2-bedroom suite with a living area, kitchen, and laundry. The location was fantastic – we could walk to both Barangaroo and Circular Quay in about 15 minutes. We’d spend our days exploring and return in the late afternoon to swim in the indoor pool & hot tub.
What We Did
Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
When Mike and I were last in Sydney in 2003, Mike did the Sydney Bridge Climb and I (being massively afraid of heights) didn’t. It was one of those things in hindsight that I wished I had just done. Fast forward 16 years and I signed up the whole family! Everyone was excited except for my 9-year-old who maintained he was not going to do it until he was latched onto the bridge and beginning his climb. He was a good sport, but didn’t enjoy the long pauses on the way up as we waited for all the groups ahead of us to take pictures.
We were in harnesses and attached to the bridge so there was no chance of falling. We climbed 1,332 steps including some vertical ladders, but it was not strenuous as we went at a fairly slow pace with lots of stops along the way. The total climb time from suiting up to completion was about 3.5 hours. The views were spectacular on the entire climb. It was windy, especially at the top, and it rained before we left and after we got back, but was nice and clear for our climb! Everyone (even my 9-year-old) gave it a thumbs up at the end.
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
Living along the California coastline has spoiled me and set the bar high for other coastal views. The Bondi to Coogee Coastal walk did not disappoint! I think I had a huge grin on my face the entire time. We saw humpback whales, iceberg pools, so many surfers, and spectacular views around every corner! This is a must do when visiting Sydney!
We started in Bondi Beach with shopping and brunch at Trio (hands down the best meal we had the entire trip) and then followed the path to the Bondi Iceberg Club and then all the way to Coogee. We stopped a lot along the way to admire the views, look for whales and play at parks. There were plenty of places to stop for coffee or snacks, but we were all still full from our brunch. The entire walk took us a couple of hours, but again, we were going at a very leisurely pace.
VIP Tour at Taronga Zoo
The Taronga Zoo probably has the best views of any zoo in the world – Opera House and Harbour Bridge. We walked from our hotel to Circular Quay and caught a ferry (12 minute ride) to the zoo. It was an easy and fun way to get there. We had pre-booked tickets for a VIP Tour which included entry tickets to the zoo and a cable car ride from the ferry to the zoo entrance. We got there a bit early so we ate lunch and went to the Sumatran Tiger Trek before our tour.
Our tour included mostly Australian animals which we liked. We saw koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, cassowaries, and many more. Our favorite part of the tour (besides having two guides all to ourselves) was going into the kitchen where the keepers prepare the food for all the animals.
Where We Ate
Most mornings we enjoyed the breakfast buffet at our hotel, but our favorite meal of the entire trip was definitely brunch at Trio in Bondi Beach. The kids all got the Nutella French Toast, Mike got the Breakfast Burrito and I got the Trio Sampler which had a little bit of everything! Delicious! We had a great dinner at Bar Patron in Circular Quay where all the plates are to share – quesadillas, tacos, tostados, and great margaritas for the adults! Our favorite lunch was at Ribs & Burgers where we all indulged on burgers & shakes after our bridge climb.
What We Didn’t Have Time For
With only 3 full days in Sydney there was a lot we didn’t get to. I really wanted to go to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum which was unfortunately closed for renovation when we were there. We also would have liked to do a food tour with Secret Food Tours and a walking tour with Context Travel – the tour times didn’t line up well with our itinerary so we found ourselves having to pick & choose.
Uluru – Australian Outback
Luckily my 14-year-old wanted to visit the Outback on this trip which was fantastic since I had never been during my previous trips. It was a little out of the way, but well worth the travel time.
We flew Virgin Australia from Sydney to Uluru – it was a short 3 hour flight and we arrived at 1pm in time for lunch at our hotel. There is a 30 minute time difference between Sydney & Uluru. Yes, 30 minutes! I didn’t know that was even a thing, but our phones and GPS watches adjusted without missing a beat.
We splurged and stayed at Longitude 131 – I highly recommend staying here. Longitude 131 is essentially all-inclusive. Our stay included their signature excursions, but there are options for others at an additional cost. All of our meals, drinks & snacks were included. There may have been some drinks that cost more, but we never encountered those. We had two tents (the two in the picture below on the far left). We had unobstructed views of Uluru from our tents (same goes for all 16 tents). The hotel was at full capacity when we were there, but it never felt crowded. There is a minimum age of 10, but I reached out before booking and they made an exception for our 9-year-old. Our kids were the only ones there and they did great on all the experiences, but there was a lot of walking, listening to guides, and self-control needed. Most of the excursions would not have been much fun for younger kids.
What We Did
Mala Walk – Uluru at Sunset
When we arrived, we were presented with a pre-planned itinerary for our stay. Our first evening we were whisked over to Uluru to enjoy the Mala walk along a portion of Uluru’s base. We learned about the history of the Mala people, viewed cave paintings and other sites important to both the Anangu and early explorers.
As the sun began to set, we entered Kantju Gorge to witness the rock walls ablaze with the light of the setting sun. Every minute, the color of the rock would change until it became bright rich orange and then began to fade again. The colors were so amazing and mesmerizing.
Field of Light
After enjoying Uluru at sunset, we experienced Bruce Munro’s internationally acclaimed art phenomenon, Field of Light. Created from 50,000 bud-like stems and crowned with radiant frosted-glass spheres, the installation blooms and appears to sway as darkness descends over Australia’s spiritual heartland. We arrived at dusk and meandered around the field enjoying all the lights around us as well as all the stars in the sky. This solar-powered exhibition lights up the outback until December 31, 2020.
Walpa Gorge – Kata Tjuta
We left the hotel before sunrise to explore the impressive formation of Kata Tjuta on a walk through Walpa Gorge. This was the coldest moment of our entire trip – it was quite cold to begin with and then the wind blew through the gorge with incredible force. We would have been ill-prepared if it weren’t for the fleece ponchos provided by Longitude 131. The kids and I loved them so much we tried to buy them from the hotel, but they weren’t for sale. Thanks to the planning of Longitude, we arrived a the gorge before anyone else and had it to ourselves. We discovered how eons of weathering and continental upheaval have created today’s landscape and learned about the animals who live here. Afterward, we visited the Cultural Centre where we learned about the spiritual and cultural meanings of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Uluru Base Walk
On another early morning, we set off to watch the sun rise over Uluru and then did the 10km base walk. From a distance, Uluru looks like a big rock coming straight out of the dirt, but up close we were able to discover acacia woodlands, grassed claypans, and the Mutitjulu Waterhole. Additionally, up close the rock has amazing features and details that are impossible to decipher from a distance. Our guides shared many stories with us about Uluru including the Anangu creation story of Kuniya and Lira.
The only excursion we booked at an additional cost was a 30-minute helicopter ride over Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Lake Amadeus, the largest salt lake in the Northern Territory. While it looks like a large lake from above, it’s usually dry and what we saw was just a dry salt crust in the shape of a lake. We felt like we had seen both Uluru and Kata Tjuta a lot from the ground so it was fun to see it from above. And the kids had never been in a helicopter before so it was a fun treat for them! It was also really exciting because we took off from the helipad right at Longitude 131!
Daintree Rainforest – Queensland
There was only one flight a day from Uluru to Cairns so we took it despite the less than ideal time. We arrived in Cairns at 6:30pm and then had a 2 hour drive to Mossman near the Daintree Rainforest. We arrived at our hotel around 8:30pm and luckily the restaurant at our hotel was still open for dinner since there was nothing else closeby.
I had a really hard time finding a place to stay for this leg of our trip. There were plenty of hotels in Cairns and Port Douglas, but we wanted to stay further north near the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation since that’s where we wanted to spend most of our time and wanted to cut down on driving time each day. I looked at Thala Beach Reserve, but wasn’t sure it would be kid-friendly enough for us (I think it would have been). Originally, I had booked at the Pullman in Port Douglas, but switched when I found Silky Oaks Lodge which is part of the same Luxury Lodges of Australia group as Longitude 131, Lizard Island, and also Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island where we considered visiting (which as a sidenote was destroyed in the Australian bush fires in the fall of 2019). Silky Oaks Lodge was not as updated as the other two resorts where we stayed, but we loved all the meandering paths, and the fact that our rooms were perched on a hill overlooking the river which felt like we were staying in a treehouse.
What We Did
We spent our first day in Mossman around Silky Oaks Lodge. We swam in the pool, played tennis, kayaked along the river and hiked to Figtree Rapids to climb on the rocks and swim.
On our second day, we hired a guide to take us through the Daintree Rainforest all the way to Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation is a significant UNESCO World Heritage-listed site where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. We looked for wild cassowaries (didn’t see any), walked through old palm forests, explored the beach at Cape Tribulation, had lunch along a river, stopped for homemade ice cream and then finished the day with a river boat tour looking for crocodiles (we saw a lot!).
Lizard Island – Great Barrier Reef
Lizard Island is 200km north of Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef. The only way to get there is by private plane with 2 daily departures from Cairns. We drove from our hotel in Mossman to the Cairns airport to catch our flight. We waited in a small private area until they called our name and then were assigned to the smaller of two planes departing for the island. It was just the 5 of us and a pilot. While the flight over the reef was spectacular, I did not enjoy the small plane and was so relieved when we arrived safely on the island!
Similar to Longitude 131, Lizard Island Resort is all-inclusive and doesn’t allow children under 10. Again, they waived that rule for us and we had no issues bringing our 9-year-old. (Another sidenote: I had a difficult time finding a luxury resort that would accept children. We also considered Orpheus Island Lodge where our friends with 3 children younger than ours had recently stayed and loved). Lizard Island Resort is the only one on the island, which is also a National Park, and sits right on the Great Barrier Reef. We stayed in one of the Oceanview Villas with 2 bedrooms and a plunge pool overlooking the ocean. All meals, snacks & drinks were included. Each evening, they brought cocktails, drinks for the kids, and canapés to our room. One evening they served us a 7-course “chef’s dinner” on the beach. The day before the chef sat down with us to come up with a menu. Since our 9-year-old doesn’t eat any type of seafood, the chef instead brought him “club sandwich sliders” which he thought was the most amazing thing he’d ever eaten.
What We Did
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
Before our trip, Mike, our 12-year-old daughter, and I all took a SCUBA certification course. The last thing we had to complete was our open water dives which we did through the instructors at Lizard Island. We had 4 dives over 2 days with our instructor Jason who was amazing! It worked out really well as we coordinated a separate snorkeling instructor for our boys so they could come with us on the boat and snorkel while we did our dives. We had many skills to cover during our dives, but Jason planned it so we completed all of our skills in the first 3 dives so the last was purely for pleasure. We dove along both the Inner Reef and the Outer Reef. Our Outer Reef dive was at Cod Hole which is considered one of the top 10 diving spots in the world. We saw turtles, stingrays, clams, so much coral, potato cod, pipe fish and so many others! It was an absolutely incredible experience that none of us will soon forget! Even the boys who stayed at the surface had an amazing time and were able to see the same things we did (just from another perspective). So even if you’re not a diver, you have to visit the GBR!
Kayaking & Paddleboarding
Lizard Island sits right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef so we were able to view coral and fish right from our hotel’s beach! We took full advantage of the complimentary glass bottom kayaks and stand up paddle boards!
We took a motorized dinghy full of snorkel gear and snacks to a secluded beach on the island. We were the only ones there except for a handful of sea turtles. We all grabbed our gear and jumped in to snorkel with them!
With only 2 weeks to spend in Australia, I think we did a good job seeing different aspects of the country: city, Outback, rainforest, Great Barrier Reef. There are still so many places we left unexplored and we definitely need to go back. We typically try to spend 4 nights and 3 full days in each destination so we don’t feel too rushed and reduce the number of times we have to pack up. I think we did a good job except I would have cut one day from the Outback and added another day to both Mossman and Lizard Island. During my 3 trips to Australia, I have only been during their winter or spring. I would love to go back in the summer, but I wouldn’t be deterred by going again during their mild winter.
What are your favorite places to visit in Australia? Where should we be sure to go next time? I’d love to hear your thoughts!