Best Australian outdoor activities include swimming Sydney’s glorious beaches and harbour pools, camping in Kakadu National Park, biking and hiking on Lord Howe Island, bushwalking in Southwest Western Australia, and road trips through the Red Centre.
Early this year, British newspaper The Telegraph invited me to be an advocate for Australia’s great outdoors for a Tourism Australia campaign. Along with a handful of other Australians asked to divulge their favourite places, I was asked to share the best Australian outdoor activities and where to do them. I thought it time I share them here.
Now while you’d probably expect me to be asked to suggest top Australian food experiences or favourite sunset spots, I assure you that I do more eat and gawk at sunsets back home, and that there are indeed reasons to fly all the way to Australia other than to savour fantastic Aussie food and sunsets.
I thank my family for my love of Australia’s great outdoors. Photo albums are filled with images from weekends spent water-skiing on the Hawkesbury River, Sunday drives to the Blue Mountains, fishing trips to the northern New South Wales coast, camping trips to Victoria, and our epic five-year round-Australia road trip in a caravan (an RV to our American readers).
Years later, living in Sydney together, Terence and I spent summer weekends swimming in harbourside pools or exploring Sydney’s glorious beaches (Terence surfing, me reading), weekends with my family on the lakes and beach, and much later, we did months-long road trips in Australia, researching and photographing guidebooks, including a road-tripping book.
From our many years covering the country, these are our top picks of the best Australian outdoor activities. As usual, this brief guide to where to experience Australia’s great outdoors is highly selective and personal and by no means comprehensive. If you have your favourites, feel free to add them in the comments below.
Best Australian Outdoor Activities and Where to Experience Australia’s Great Outdoors
Best Swimming Spots in Australia – Sydney, New South Wales
Swimming is one of the best Australian outdoor activities as much for the sheer pleasure of an invigorating dip in the sea, as for the chance it affords to take in Australia’s beautiful beaches, the best of which are in Sydney. Yes, I’m biased. I’m Sydney born. Although we’ve lived abroad for 20 years, returning to Australia when we can to visit loved-ones and research a guidebook or two. On trips home, as the plane flies over Sydney heads, the entrance to the world’s most breathtaking harbour, I get choked up. I’m gobsmacked each time by Sydney’s beauty, which is thanks to all that turquoise water and sandy beaches. But as much as those birds-eye-views move me, the best vantage point for soaking up the city’s beauty is from one of Sydney’s best beaches or harbour and oceanside swimming pools. As far as beaches go, you can’t beat the creamy sands and clear water of charismatic Bondi, Bronte and Manly, but northern beaches such as Whale Beach and Palm Beach are also beautiful. Ocean pool Bondi Icebergs has unbeatable Bondi Beach vistas, but my favourite is a harbour pool and my old local, Balmain’s Dawn Fraser Baths, Australia’s oldest public swimming pool. Built in the 1880s, it has a wooden bathhouse and timber deck, and oozes history and charm. An afternoon swimming in Sydney should be punctuated by a good book, such as 30 Days in Sydney by Peter Carey, who used to live in Balmain on Sydney harbour.
Where to Stay in Sydney
Book a room with harbour views at waterfront Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel, a two-minute walk from Watsons Bay Baths and Camp Cove. Minutes from Bondi Beach, stylish QT Sydney has light-filled rooms and apartments with kitchens. A 15-minute walk to Bondi or Bronte beaches, The Baxley Bondi is a whitewashed gem with a beachy vibe.
Best Hikes, Bike Rides and Picnics in Australia – Lord Howe Island, New South Wales
A two-hour flight northeast of Sydney, Lord Howe Island (pictured above) hosts some of the best Australian outdoor activities and also has a UNESCO World Heritage-listing for its abundance of wildlife, marine life and plant life, as well as its unique natural beauty. On one end of the island are the lofty rugged mountains of Lidgbird and Gower if you’re up for a challenging hike, while at the other end, the gentler humps of Mount Eliza and Malabar Hill, blanketed in luxuriant vegetation, offer easier hiking. In between, there are pretty bays of crystal-clear turquoise water skirted by sandy beaches for you to enjoy some of our best Australian outdoor activities, including swimming, snorkelling and fishing. Lord Howe Island is tiny, too – just 11 kms long and 2kms wide – with a population of 350 and only 400 visitors allowed at any time. No high-rises, a handful of shops, and few cars means bicycle riding bliss and serene strolls. We spent most of our time on two wheels leisurely exploring the little island. One day, Dani Rourke, the owner of Pinetrees, suggested a picnic barbecue at an agreed location and provided a map. We arrived on our bikes to find she’d dropped off a picnic basket packed with salads, bread and cheeses and a cooler full of fresh fish and cold beers. We munched into our barbecued fish sandwiches at a picnic table under Norfolk Pines, gazing at an aquamarine lagoon. Magic.
Where to Stay on Lord Howe Island
Family-owned Pinetrees has a range of comfortable rooms and apartments with kitchenettes, a lovely breezy restaurant and beachside bar, where they host sundowners each evening. They also arrange picnics! Somerset Apartments offer affordable self-catering accommodation with kitchens, and you can put together your own picnic.
Best Indigenous Tour in Australia – Monkey Mia and Shark Bay, Western Australia
The best way to experience the outdoors in Australia is with one of our original Australians, making indigenous tours such as a hike to see rock art or a bush tucker walk some of the best Australian outdoor activities you can do. Our first indigenous tour in Australia was at Monkey Mia in the Shark Bay World Heritage area in northwest Western Australia with Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell. Capes owns and operates Wula Guda Nyinda, which means “you come this way”, and runs incredible eco-cultural adventures. We’ll never forget Capes’ introduction to our bush walk: “Take soft steps,” he told us. “Today you’re going to learn how to respect Country. Today you’re going to learn how to let the bush talk to you.” And we did! On our bushwalk around Monkey Mia, we learnt how to identify wildlife tracks in the sand, the meaning of birdcalls, how to find water and food, and even how to recognise an animal by its poo! We learnt that the arid land was a “bush tucker supermarket” and “pharmacy” and there was a smorgasbord and medicine cabinet of wild berries, leaves, twigs, and fruit. It was a life changing experience. You can experience more of the best Australian outdoor activities with Capes as he also now offers kayaking tours, stand-up paddle-boarding tours, and camping and 4WD adventures.
Where to Stay in Monkey Mia
Slap-bang on the beach Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort offers everything from camping and caravan sites (some with ocean vistas) to smart seafront villas, an easy saunter to the sand.
Best Wildlife Watching in Australia – Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Some of the best Australian outdoor activities involve wildlife and marine life and Kangaroo Island, a thirty-minute flight from Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, offers an abundance of wildlife watching and marine spotting experiences. For us, Kangaroo Island is a microcosm of Australia, with its interior of beautiful fragrant bushland – mallee scrub, eucalyptus forests, and sheep-speckled pastures – and a wild coastline fringed with squeaky-soft sandy beaches, soaring cliffs, rock formations resembling art works, and boulders polished by ocean waves, punctuated by tranquil bays bobbing with fishing boats. Aside from the rugged natural beauty, there’s wildlife galore – from tree-climbing koalas to napping kangaroos, frolicking fur seals and feisty sea lions. There are also fantastic coastal walks and wonderful local produce and island wine to pack for bush picnics and sundowners by the sea.
Where to Stay on Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat is best located for wildlife watching, near the entrance to Flinders Chase National Park and has rooms, suites and self-contained apartments on 113 acres of beautiful native bushland. The Kangaroo Island Seafront Hotel in Penneshaw offers a range of sea-view rooms and villas, and a pool, while Sea Dragon Lodge, just out of Penneshaw, has self-catering accommodation on 250 acres, a short walk from a sandy beach.
Best Bushwalking in Australia – The Cape to Cape Walk, Southwest Western Australia
Bushwalking is what Aussies call an easy hike through native Australian bushland and it’s one of the best Australian outdoor activities. Australia is blessed with brilliant bushwalking right across the country. But my absolute favourite bush walk runs along the coast of the Margaret River region, a short drive south of Perth. The epic Cape to Cape Track is a 135km walking trail through pristine bushland along the stunning coast of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park in Western Australia’s southwest. Stretching from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin near Augusta in the south, it’s got to be one of Australia’s great walks. While you can walk it independently, it’s best done with a knowledgeable local guide. For a bushwalk you won’t forget, try local operator Walk Into Luxury, which specialises in private, guided walking tours along sections of the Cape to Cape route. Rest assured, you don’t have to do the entire route. We did two sections, carrying nothing but a daypack crammed with gourmet snacks and a lunch box, were transported between the track and heavenly accommodation where massages and spa treatments awaited. On one afternoon we arrived to a sumptuous seafood lunch and bottle of Margaret River wine on ice at a spacious apartment with sea views from the plunge pool. That’s how to experience the great outdoors in Australia!
Where to Stay
Do the Cape to Cape independently and you can camp at sites en route or arrange drop-offs and pick-ups at the start and end of different sections with your accommodation. Walk Into Luxury includes stays at properties such as the Pullman Bunker Bay Resort near Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, Smiths Beach Resort opposite Canal Rocks, and Injidup Spa Retreat above Injidup Beach.
Best Outback Road Trip in Australia – The Backroads from Alice Springs to Uluru, Northern Territory
You can’t experience Australia’s great outdoors without experiencing the Outback and the best way to experience the Outback is on an outback road trip through the Red Centre, Australia’s spiritual heart. Most travellers take the main highway from Alice Springs to Uluru but my favourite drive is the more off the beaten track track from ‘The Alice’ through the West MacDonnell Ranges via Kings Canyon to the monumental red rock that is Uluru, with a detour to Glen Helen Gorge. On our last road trip we saw a total of three vehicles over two days. Expect dramatic ochre-coloured gorges carved through rocky mountain ranges, lush palm filled valleys, tranquil watering holes, and colossal canyons formed by a meteorite. Along the way you’ll get to stop to experiences some of the best Australian outdoor activities the country has to offer, including bush walks, swims in water holes, birdwatching, and evening barbecues under the stars. In Alice Springs, you can do camel rides and when you get to Uluru there are countless outdoor activities you can do. I guarantee you the rugged beauty will take your breath away. More ideas for Outback road trips and road trip tips.
Where to Stay in Alice Springs and Uluru
The Aurora Alice Springs has smart rooms and a pool in the heart of town, while on the Todd River bank, Desert Palms Alice Springs has villas with kitchens, and a swimming pool. There are plenty of accommodation options at Uluru to suit every budget – from caravan and camping sites to backpacker dorms, apartments, hotels, and luxury lodge, Longitude 131°.
Best Camping Spots in Australia – Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Making an epic around-Australia journey in a camper-van or caravan is a rite of passage for many Australian families. Mine did it twice, the first time dragging my little sister and I around the country for five years in a caravan. Even when we based ourselves in caravan parks, we’d unhook he van and head off on some rough stock track for a few days of camping. Some of the best camping spots in Australia are at Kakadu National Park, 150km east of Darwin. It’s a must-stop if you find yourself falling in love the Australia’s great outdoors. At over 20,000 square kilometres, it’s colossal, teeming with wildlife and native flora, dotted with ancient Aboriginal art, and dramatic landscapes wherever you look. One of my favourite views of the stunning country is at Gunlom, also called Waterfall Creek, from the natural waterhole, which is like an infinity pool. It’s a sweating hike up a hill, however, you can pitch a tent in the camping ground at the base and reward yourself with cold beers, a barbecue dinner, and a night sleeping under the stars.
Where to Stay in Kakadu National Park
There are camping sites throughout Kakadu National Park. If you need a break from the tent, Cooinda Lodge near Yellow Waters has camping grounds, as well as smart rooms and a swimming pool. In Jabiru settlement, Kakadu Lodge has camping sites and basic cabins, while crocodile-shaped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile has more comfortable rooms with Aboriginal paintings on the walls and a gallery devoted to indigenous art.
BOOK THE BEST AUSTRALIAN OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
If you’re a fan of Australia’s great outdoors, we’d love to know what you think the best Australian outdoor activities are. Feel free to leave your favourites in the comments below.