The Magical Land of Oz

Kangaroos hopping in city streets, vibrant parrots flying overhead, secluded world-class beaches, rivers to swim in, and a delightful food and coffee culture. Australia offers it all.

a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

Australia, the “sunburnt country” immortalized by Dorothy Mackellar, a magical land of Oz sans the Emerald City and Munchkins, as far as I know, is a land of adventures, a place where stories become your most cherished souvenirs.

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“We wanted proper outback: a place where men were men and sheep were nervous.”

― Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

Like China, Canada, Russia, or the US, Australia is a big place. From the tropical north to the mild south, from the developed coastlands with vibrant metropolises to the vast, desolate, and ominous Outback, you could spend your life wandering it.

Born of the Aboriginal Dreamtime 70,000 years ago, the first European footsteps were placed by the Dutch in 1608 and settled by the Brits in 1788. The myths, mystery, and history run rampant with heroes, villains, and legends.

What truly sets Australia apart is the one element that can make or break any destination – its people. I have somehow, without any intention, and before ever laying a foot on Aussie soil, ended up with two of my oldest, and one of my newest and dearest friends all from that wondrous land. With many young and vibrant cities, it has maintained a small-town charm that makes you cherish the friends you make.

Australia requires a visa for travel from very few countries, and at last check, the average stay was 90 days. With that in mind, plan well, and use the time you have to explore.

As for our journey, we flew in from Chang Mai via Bangkok to Gold Coast Airport, where Mal (in chronological order: Australian friend #2 of 3) picked us up, and less than a 10-minute drive later, we were standing in Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (28 Tomewin St, Currumbin QLD 4223, Australia) and Mags had a koala in her arms.

On this journey, we were truly blessed by having such good friends who warmly welcomed us into their homes and shared their lives with us. Our other experiences with accommodation included camping, which I highly recommend whenever possible, and we had the privilege of staying at the luxurious Park Hyatt Sydney with a breathtaking view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, all for the grand total of Zero Australian Dollars – yes, you read that right! You can read about the magic behind this incredible experience in Mags’ Travel Hacking post. Suffice it to say, when the Chase Hyatt card offers a generous perk, we wholeheartedly embrace and appreciate it. That memorable stay was our final stop, and we already can’t wait to go back.

We began on the Gold Coast and stayed in New South Wales, with Mal’s mom Viola, one of the kindest, sweetest, and most generous people I have ever met. She adored Mags, but then again, don’t we all? We wandered mainly from Alstonville to Byron Bay, hitting all the beaches and beach towns on the way. In a nutshell, I could best relate it to my home state of California, with the mellowness of the 70s but the crowdedness of the early 1900s. We’re talking vast, clean, golden sands, and miles of beach, that you share with half a dozen other people. Even the most crowded beach on the most crowded day looked empty to me. And if you love a well-chilled brew, they take it to another level, caking the outside of their beer taps with ice just to guarantee a frosty pint of Tooheys, Reschs, Tooth, or the like.

Next, we ventured to the state of Victoria and the sister towns of Wodonga and Albury. Here, we stayed with Michael, the latest addition to my Oz-tuplet of friends, who effortlessly skipped the line and found himself in the VIP lounge of friendship. Michael’s wonderful family, including Mary, Jules, and James, embraced us with open arms. Mags and I instantly became a part of their tribe and could imagine staying with them forever. And you want to know the worst part? They would have welcomed it, too.

Now I know you’re thinking “Where the hell is Wodonga, and why would you…” but let me stop you there. Get away from the beaches and the typical tour guide spots and swap them for Kangaroos in your backyard. Walk one way up the Murray River, hop in the water, and meet some locals as you float back down. Walk Les Stone Park to Willow Park and try to get lost. Spend the day wandering around the Albury Botanic Gardens or splashing in the Woolshed Waterfalls 30 minutes out of town via the charming, historical town of Beechworth. Go and find places that you’ve never heard of, and fall in love with them, and their people.

Then we made our way down to Melbourne for Christmas, with Peter, Yolley, Athenie, and Yorgo. Peter was the first in my Oz-ymandias collection and, as he would be the first to tell you, is the first in all things. Melbourne is perhaps the most European of the Australian major cities and has the food and culture to go with it. The Greek heritage that Peter has, he takes with him everywhere. When he lived in LA, he practically got them to make Greek Easter an American Holiday.

We stayed with them in Oakleigh, where drinking cold Freddos and hanging with his uncles at a cafe or going fishing becomes a daily event. Melbourne is an amazing city. Grab yourself a rechargeable MYKI Pass for public transport and just wander. Start at Flinders Street Station and Federation Square. Find a cafe (I mean local, not chain) and experience one of the best coffee cultures anywhere. Australia’s boom in Italian immigration coincided with the birth of the espresso machine.

Wander aimlessly and check out the cobbled stone side streets, with amazing restaurants, bars, cafes, and street art that will blow you away. As for those restaurants, there is a mix of international cuisines that will not disappoint. Chinese and Greek were at the top of my list, but there is little to let you down.

Try the lamb, other than in New Zealand, you will not find any to match. Give Kangaroo meat a go. Don’t look at me that way. You don’t think the lamb was adorable? I didn’t get to eat a Koala, they can move a lot faster than you’d think ;). Oh, try some Vegemite. Start with a very tiny amount on buttered toast, and you just might join me among the converts. Plus it’ll help keep those mozzies away (that’s mosquitoes to the rest of us) if you eat enough of it. Don’t forget the incredible botanical gardens, a concert at the Alais Theatre, or a cricket match at the MCG (The Melbourne Cricket Grounds).

We found our way back to Wodonga to meet up with 2Ms & 2Js again, for a camping trip to Jarvis Bay. To be honest, it did border on Glamping, as Michael and the crew were extremely well prepared. Okay, they didn’t bring the kitchen sink, but they did bring a kettle. This was, without a doubt, Mags’ favorite part of the trip. Nothing can compare to waking up with wild baby kangaroos hopping around your tent in the morning and spending your days on sparkling-white sandy beaches by the aquamarine waters of Jarvis Bay. Now barbequing at the camp was a bit different than what I am used to, but it’s fun and simple. You essentially have large gas griddles, I assume to avoid brush fires. So, for those of us expecting charcoal briquettes and mesquite chips, (as every traveler knows) revel in the new.

We finished up with a full-moon train ride to Sydney. There we met up with Mal again and redeemed our two free nights at the Park Hyatt Sydney. Our room had a view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and they apologized for not having one with a view of the Sydney Opera House. The hotel was stunning, the restaurants, room service, and customer service were top-notch, and the city, oh, the city. A metropolis, young, vibrant, and squeaky clean. Beach walks abound. Cross the bridge and wander the harbor. Use a Sydney Opal Card (local transit pass) for a harbor boat ride that you’ll never forget. Touch the legendary Sydney Opera House. Do the Spit to Manly walk, for a truly perfect day. Have coffee, grab a beer, and enjoy a bite. All the things you’d expect to love, you will.

That was it, that was Oz for us. No wizard, but plenty of magic. The places were extraordinary, but it was the people that made it feel like home.

With special thanks to Athenie, James, Jules, Mal, Mary, Michael, Peter, Viola, Yolley, and Yorgo.

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For one of the most affordable (and interesting) ways to travel, check out the Workaway post.

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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

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