Summering in Australia’s Winter

Wondering if you can brave the howl of an Australian winter? You can.

aus manly west in wave formatted

The trouble with taking the kids to Australia had always been twofold. 1) You need a decent chunk of time to make a dent in what you want to see and 2) that time is going to be during their school vacation —winter in Australia.

But our research soon revealed that the Australian winter is actually a great time to visit. Here’s why.
australia kids opera house

  1. Mild temperatures. “Sydney is like going to LA in the winter,” my Aussie friend Tina told us. “It might be raining. But you are just as likely to get beach weather.” We got the beach weather. In fact, during our trip in August 2013, we were so lucky that we saw only one afternoon of clouds and wind in Sydney. And although the water was chilly, we swam and scuba dived our way around the country.
  2. Prime time. Winter is actually the season to trek the outback. No one goes to the Red Centre in the Australian summer – it is far too hot. Worse, summer brings a monsoon that brings unstable and humid weather to the Northern Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef.
  3. Fewer nasties. No shark nets, box jellies or irukandji (a jellyfish thought to be the most venomous creature in existence) are around in the winter to ruin a nice swim in the sea. Poisonous snakes and lizards are hibernating in the bush, and there are far fewer flies too. All good stuff…

That said, you might miss some aspects of this vast country when traveling in winter. Melbourne, Tasmania and the southern wine country get a lot of winter rain (think Seattle). And many of the koala preserves, wildlife centers and beautiful drives are located in this area. (However, during our trip, we talked with several travelers who went south anyway, got wet and saw loads of koalas in the wild.)

Additionally, the ocean is not as warm as it would be at other times of the year. This fact convinced us to go north to tropical Queensland instead of the Gold Coast area or the Whitsundays in hopes of finding warmer seas and calmer wind – which we did. (Again, however, we met travelers who had traversed gorgeous beach to gorgeous beach from Sydney all the way north. No one complained.)

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The winter season actually helped us to overcome our biggest challenge in visiting Australia for the first time: Where to go. End to end, Australia is just about as big as the continental United States and it’s packed with cool stuff to see. But a friend reminded us not to try to see too much. “On your first trip to the U.S., you might want to see New York, Miami, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Hollywood. But it will be a much better trip if you don’t.”

After factoring in the winter constraints, we decided to base our three weeks in three areas: Sydney, Alice Springs and Cairns. Each destination was completely different from the others and satisfied our cravings for a glimpse of classic Australia: the watery beauty and metropolitan cool of Sydney, the wild greens and brilliant blues of tropical Queensland, and the dusty, tough redness of the outback.

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Add those stops to the quirky friendliness of the Aussies and a completely unique natural environment and you get a perfect family destination – in any season.

The ROAM Report : Australia

Travelers: Don, Maryann, West (12) and Pearl (10)

Date: August 2013

Itinerary: Sydney (4 nights), fly to Alice Springs/Red Center (6 nights), fly to Cairns/Great Barrier Reef live-aboard (4 nights), rent car for Daintree Rainforest/Ellis Beach (6 nights)

Budget: Approximately $500 per day for all activities, food and lodging for the entire family (excluding international flights)

The Good Stuff

  • Nonstop Access – Flying nonstop from SFO to Sydney in 14 hours is bliss. Even with bare-bones United service and Pearl breaking out in a fever moments after takeoff, the trip was a party compared to our typical 3-day odyssey getting to Asia.
  • No Hassles – No crime. No language barriers. No vaccinations. No trouble purchasing visas online. Easy.
  • Marvelous Manly – We based our four nights of Sydney time at the Novotel in Manly, a small beach town at the northern mouth of the entrance to Sydney harbor. With miles of hiking, biking and walking paths, and all manner of water sports, Manly is an idyllic spot for a family to base their explorations of the city: beach just steps from the door, a pedestrian arcade called “The Corso” with restaurants, shops, bars and ice cream stands, and easy access to a 30-minute ferry ride, which doubles as a harbor tour, to Sydney’s Opera House and Central Business District. Jetlagged sunrises through the Norfolk Pines which line the beach are dreamy.

aus manly sunrise

  • 1,400K of Outback – If you like the California deserts and the American Southwest as much as we do, the Red Centre is a must see. From Alice Springs, we set out in a four-wheel-drive truck for a four-night camping safari with Way Outback. Our goal was Uluru (formerly known as Ayer’s Rock), but the entire experience was epic: getting rattled by passing trains and rescuing broken-down drivers on the dirt roads, building campfires and sleeping out under a billion stars in swags, spotting wild camels, dingoes, wallabies and horses in the bush, and hiking through Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), Kings Canyon and the MacDonnells – each a uniquely beautiful scene. (Read more about our safari with Way Outback.)

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  • Alice Is So… Alice – Alice Springs is unique – even for an outpost town. The combination of local Aboriginal people, Aussie transplants from the coasts, trekking tourists, bike-messenger toughs and cool young hipsters plopped in the middle of red nowhere makes for a unique vibe. Page 27 Cafe was the perfect spot for good food and people watching downtown. Club Eastside encourages tourists to dine with local families and offers great meals, billiards and even a playground in the back.

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  • Great GBR Diving – Seeing a giant turtle come between West and me as the late afternoon sun streamed down through the water is a scene I won’t ever forget. During our three days diving on the Great Barrier Reef with ProDive, we also saw sharks, giant clams, huge groupers and tiny Nemo (but not Dory) – and goofed around with amazing travelers like Hila. Truly unforgettable…

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  • Jungle Fun – We rented a car in Cairns and traveled north through the Daintree Rainforest to Cape Tribulation where the paved road ends, looking for cassowaries and salties, and beachcombing across countless, gorgeous deserted stretches of coastline. Crocodylus was a very neat spot for families to stay while exploring the Daintree. They have giant tent-like rooms for families, a large restaurant and lots of games to play. The swing in the palm tree at the end of the road in Cow Bay was practically worth the trip — bliss!

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  • Beachfront Bungalow-ing  — At the end of every trip, we like to find a place to relax, do nothing and get bored before we return home. We chose Ellis Beach Bungalows because of its beachfront location, inexpensive price and small scale. The Four Seasons it wasn’t, but Ellis Beach definitely served its purpose: lots and lots of wave splashing, pool time, beach walks, book reading, card playing and chill-out time.
  • Cairns Critters – We spent nearly three weeks crisscrossing the country, looking for wildlife from car windows without much luck. When we mentioned this to the clerk at Ellis Beach, she directed us to the rear of a sports club on the northeast corner of the Trinity Beach Road exit off the Captain Cook Highway. Early the next morning, there were no fewer than 500 kangaroos waiting for us, hopping, grazing and lazing about in an empty field. Euphoria!

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Our next stop was the Cairns Tropical Zoo. For $20 each we wandered through the compact animal park and got a full dose of Australian fauna. We arrived right when it opened and saw 20 koalas up close, clambering around before breakfast (not just sleeping in a tree like at the zoo). And we had the whole place to ourselves! For an additional price, you can hold a koala and get your photo taken. (Yes, I did that.) This was one of the kids’ favorite stops in all of Australia – mine too.

australia cairns zoo kangaroo hands

  • Traveler Talk – Outback safari campsites and live-aboard enabled our kids to spend a lot of time with younger and older travelers from around the world. They were able to engage in conversations about great places in Australia, life at home in Israel or London or Switzerland or Singapore, and world politics. They ate it up.

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The Not So Good

  • Break that Piggy Bank – Man, Australia is expensive! I thought the A$4 bottle of Coke at the airport was airport pricing but no – it is Australia pricing. A coffee is also A$4. A bacon-and-egg sandwich (seemingly the national breakfast) runs about A$8-$12. (During our trip, the Australian dollar was approximately US$0.95) Beer and wine are also crazy expensive because of the high taxes. Beer runs about A$8-$10 in a pub or $3-$5 a bottle from a shop. We paid A$20 for a bottle of Matua Sauvignon Blanc that sells for US$6.99 at Costco here. An ice cream or frozen yogurt is around A$5. Pubs serve lunch for $A18-$25 a plate, but on the upside, each have daily specials that make it economically feasible to keep a family fed.
  • Scary Salties – In case you didn’t know, Australia is home to lots of dangerous critters – including giant man-eating saltwater crocodiles that live in the rivers and ocean beaches in Queensland and the Northern Territories. These salties are a very real danger and something even the toughest Aussie will confess a healthy fear of. While we were taking Dan Irby’s Daintree River cruise to get a closer look at these bad boys, Dan told us a swimmer had been eaten in the Northern Territories just the day before. Yikes. Checking in for our last few nights at Ellis Beach, the clerk was dubiously assuring. “Salties? Oh no. We haven’t seen one of them out here for at least a couple months.” I spent the next few days with my eyes constantly on the horizon and I pretty much prayed every time my kids insisted we go night swimming. But we survived…

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  • Sibling Squabbling – I’ll never forget my first trip to the Sydney Opera House: my kids bickering and taking swipes at each other as they chased up and down the steps. Don and I stayed a safe distance back and tried our best to appreciate the architectural masterpiece without dragging our kids away by their ears. It always takes a few days for our kids to get all the sibling battles out, settle in and get along – and Australia proved no exception.
  • Device Disaster – We relaxed our “no screens” policy during the last few days of our trip. Disaster! Both the kids and Don were glued to Plants vs. Zombies at every spare Wi-Fi-enabled moment. Lesson learned: back to “no screens” while traveling.

Good to Know

  • Watch for Tours – Tour companies in the United States often offer 10- or 14-day tours of Australia, which include international airfare, domestic transfers between two or three cities, lodging and activities. We flew to Sydney on frequent-flier miles and quickly discovered that deals of this kind are not offered once you’re there – you must buy the whole package from the U.S. ahead of time. Check Gate 1 Travel or keep an eye on Travelzoo for the latest deals.
  • Bundle Breakfast – Most hostels include some kind of basic breakfast, which is a great way to save money and get an early start. For lodgings that offer it as an option, it pays to buy breakfast up front versus when you arrive. The amazing Aussie breakfast buffet at the Novotel in Manly was A$20 extra per night for our entire family. Had we waited to buy breakfast in town, we could hardly have secured coffees and milks for A$20.
  • Find the Meal Deals – Every pub will have a daily lunch special or a two-for-one night. Every restaurant seems to have a special plate every night – fish and chips, steak, pasta, etc. The servings tend to be giant, so sharing is absolutely possible. A few places in Sydney offered a kids’ menu, but we didn’t notice too many after that.
  • Procrastinators Rejoice – If you didn’t plan your summer trip in January, don’t fret. Australia has space for you. We had secured our SFO to Sydney flight on miles early in the year, but we were not able to plan the specific stops until much later. In fact, most of our domestic air and tour bookings were not made until late July for August travel.
  • But Road Trippers Must Plan Ahead – Just as it would in the States, planning a road trip with stops at popular campgrounds will require making reservations far in advance. While staying at Ellis Beach, we met many retired Aussie couples who trip around the country in their camper vans all winter and stay weeks at a time in the best spots.
  • Only Drive When Needed – We managed to keep from renting a car until the last week of our trip, which saved major cash. When we finally got behind the wheel in Queensland, we found the driving was easy – with roads and scenery a lot like Hawaii (except for the driving on the left part). We felt having a car was essential for exploring the area, but there are also day-tripper bus tours that run up to the Daintree and visit the major sights. We briefly looked into renting a camper, but the cost of the rental, fuel and campsites made it more expensive than just staying in a hostel – not to mention the psychological expense of packing and organizing an international road trip.
  • Board a Live-aboard – The Great Barrier Reef is a good bit offshore. If you want to spend any time snorkeling or diving there (and not just boating back and forth), you must stay out there on a boat. After much research, we booked ProDive’s two-night trip, which was a perfect beginning scuba trip for the kids (Read more about our dive trip.)
  • Outback Safaris – There are many tour companies that book driving tours of the Red Centre and up to Darwin. These experts do all the driving, know the best spots to see, make all the reservations and all in all orchestrate a great experience. (Read more about our trip with Way Outback.) But be ready for the outback toilet!

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  • Aboriginal Life – It is somewhat difficult for tourists to interact with the indigenous Australian communities. They are private people and it is not easy to visit their villages. Still, we learned much about the native populations during our Way Outback safari and at the visitor center in Uluru, and the kids played with local kids while we were in Alice Springs. Other travelers reported similar opportunities in Darwin and the Northern Territories.
  • What to Cut? – While we truly enjoyed every part of this trip, there are a few things I’d cut out if we had less time: 1) Stay fewer nights in Sydney if we weren’t visiting friends (our kids don’t appreciate cities), 2) skip the Daintree (pretty but there are better rain forests and beaches in the world) and 3) skip Ellis Beach (a good chill-out spot, but if you don’t need that, don’t stop here; Manly Beach in Sydney would have also been an outstanding end-of-trip relaxation spot).

Good Resources

  • Trip Advisor – Always a great resource for family reviews of hotels.
  • Way Outback – Great place to start looking for ideas on road trips around the country.
  • Lonely Planet Sydney – If we’re in town for long, we still like having a hard copy guide in case electronics fail.
  • Yelp – Good local insight on spots in Sydney, Alice Springs and Cairns.

Good for Next Time

  • A “Real” GBR Live-aboard – When we win the lottery, we’ll head out to the Coral Sea, Ribbon Reef and Cod Hole on a weeklong boat trip that hits the classic Great Barrier Reef dive spots and flies back from Lizard Island.
  • Perth and the West Coast – The less-populated west coast has unbelievable beaches, most famously Monkey Mia, where dolphins swim in shallow water to greet tourists.
  • Broome to Darwin and Kakadu National Park – We met several young travelers who had backpacked this route either on their own or with an outfitter. There were tales of floating through river gorges, Aboriginal culture, amazing lakes and cool land formations. (I believe the kids have to be teens to take part in some of these activities, however.)
  • Melbourne – Gotta see those koalas and fairy penguins in the wild! Most of the good wildlife spotting seems to be south of Sydney.
  • Airlie Beach, Frazier Island & The Whitsundays – Everyone says Airlie Beach is one of the world’s most beautiful. And a sail through the Whitsundays would take in many of the area’s waterlocked delights.

Good Family Trip?

  • There’s no question Australia is the perfect family destination: a wide variety of activities, unique natural attractions, kooky wildlife and easy traveling. Expensive? Absolutely. But compared to Europe or even America, the value of the experience is worth it.

australia manly beach family


Maryann Thompson – March 2015

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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, family vacation in australia, summer vacation in australia


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