Flavorpill in Australia: An Insider’s Guide to The Land Down Under

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If your vision of Australia doesn’t extend much further than Crocodile Dundee throwing another shrimp on the barbie, a trip down under will leave you pleasantly surprised. One of the most diverse and fascinating countries on the planet, Australia is full of natural beauty, as well as a surfeit of arts, culture, and great food (and wine). Now that our friends at Qantas and Tourism Australia are offering what they’re calling the Ultimate Aussie Pass — which lets you jet around Oz at pleasantly discounted prices — there’s never been a better time to go. Of course, part of the joy of discovering such a massive country is just getting out and exploring, but it does help to have a bit of a helping hand to point you in the right direction. So, with that in mind, here’s our insider’s guide to Australia’s five top destinations, including where to go, what to see, and how to find the action that only the locals know about. Read up and start planning your adventure.

Sydney

When you think of popular images of Australia, it’s most likely Sydney that’s coming to mind — the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the beaches. Australia’s biggest city is also its most spectacular, and one of the prettiest in the world, spread around the gleaming expanse of the harbour. But it’s also one of the more dynamic and culturally diverse cities on Earth, and a fine place to start your visit.

Where to go

Sydney’s geography can be confusing, as everything’s set around the harbour, which seems to contain limitless coves, bays and inlets — but friendly locals will always be happy to set you right if you get lost. The city’s center is a great spot to begin, with shops, hotels, and activity aplenty. To the east is the lovely Hyde Park, then the raunchy charms of Kings Cross and its more staid neighbor Potts Point. Glebe and Balmain are cosmopolitan harbour-side enclaves, while the Inner West areas of Newtown and Marrickville have plenty of grungy charm. Across the other side of the harbour, the North Shore is a whole different world, home to some of the city’s most prestigious real estate and prettiest beaches.

What to do

You should catch at least one ferry and marvel at just how pretty the harbour is (the experience puts the Staten Island Ferry to shame, for sure). You should also spend a day at the beach if the weather’s good — Bondi is the city’s most famous, but we prefer Bronte, which is a little quieter, set on a pretty little park, with a saltwater swimming pool carved into the rocks at one end of the sand. Away from the water, art lovers have plenty of options. The excellent Museum of Contemporary Art is closed until early 2012, but definitely worth visiting once it re-opens; and in the meantime, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a host of indie galleries fill the hole just fine. Adventurous types can climb the Harbour Bridge, if so inclined. And visit the opera house, of course — even if you’re not opera-inclined, the architecture is spectacular, and there are also often non-opera shows to be seen (we saw Goldfrapp play there a couple of years back, and it was amazing).

Where to go out

Sydney loves its pubs, and there’s always going to be one close to wherever you are. We’re partial to a night at the Cricketers Arms (Surry Hills), a pleasantly down-to-earth institution that has a whacking big beer garden and a lot of charm. If you’ve been hanging out in Newtown with all the cool people, you can stop into the iconic Town Hall Hotel (known to all and sundry as the “Townie”) or any of the other watering holes on King Street. And if you’re in the city, you should definitely hit up GoodGod Small Club on Liverpool Street, which is probably Sydney’s most fashionable venue at the moment, and a fine place to catch a band or just, y’know, drink.

Where to eat

A quintessentially “Australian cuisine” is an elusive beast, but if you’re going to find it anywhere, it might just be at Bloodwood (Newtown), which serves food that mixes influences from Australia’s British heritage and its Asian locale. Eleswhere, US diner food seems to be all the rage at the moment, and places like The Norfolk (Surry Hills) are serving pretty impressive down-home comfort food — although if we had to choose one diner, it’d be The Dip, which also happens to be a part of GoodGod Small Club. If you’re staying in Kings Cross, you can wander down to Govindas, an Indian restaurant that shows films as an added incentive. Or, if you want something a bit more regionally appropriate, try any of the city’s apparently limitless supply of snappily titled Thai restaurants.

Where to head from here

There are plenty of options for awesome expeditions out of Sydney, but it’s hard to look past the Blue Mountains, a world heritage-listed region of quite spectacular beauty whose foothills start barely 30 miles out of the city center. They’re named for the distinctive blue haze the mountains take on when viewed from afar; up close, they’re home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful countryside you’ll see anywhere in the world. Further north is the Hunter Valley, which forms a lush green counterpoint to the mountains — it’s also home to some of NSW’s best wineries, so maybe make sure someone agrees to be the designated driver, eh?

Melbourne

The residents of Melbourne like to think of it as Australia’s most cultured city, and they have a point. Although it might not have the immediate aesthetic appeal of Sydney — there’s no Opera House, no Harbour Bridge — Melbourne’s a place that’s beautiful in its own way, with parks and gardens aplenty and a stately charm all its own. It’s also a metropolis that rewards those who take a couple of days to get to know it with a rich diversity of pleasures. It’s a great city to wander around and get to know, full of hidden surprises and a wealth of things to do. And it’s only an hour’s drive from some of the most beautiful coastline in the country.

Where to go

Geographically, Melbourne’s a huge city, but happily, its main points of interest are easy to navigate, because they’re almost all contained in the city center (known to locals as the CBD) and the ring of inner-city suburbs that surround it. All the cool kids hang out north of the Yarra River these days — the neighboring suburbs of Brunswick, Fitzroy, and Northcote are the hippest parts of Melbourne — although the beachside enclave of St Kilda still maintains a mixture of gentrified sophistication and dilapidated charm. The CBD itself is also home to plenty of attractions, and unlike Sydney, it’s set out on a grid, so it’s easy to find your way around.

What to do

Catch a trolley (but don’t call them that; in Melbourne, they’re called “trams”). Discover at least one little bar down a CBD laneway, preferably one that doesn’t have a name. Drink gallons of coffee — Melburnians are notorious coffee fanatics, and proud of it. Wear black. See a band or seven. Visit the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of that most Australian of sports: Aussie Rules. Visit the Arts Centre — you can see it from miles away because of its iconic spire — which houses the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring one of the country’s finest collections of contemporary art. Drink more coffee. Walk a lot. And don’t fret if it rains. Melbourne’s weather is notoriously fickle, so if it’s raining right now, the sun will probably be out in half an hour.

Where to go out

Melbourne likes to call itself Australia’s live-music capital, and with good reason. If you’re after grassroots rock n’ roll, head to The Tote (Johnston St, Collingwood) or the Northcote Social Club (High St, Northcote) to see a band. You can also see if anyone’s playing at The Forum (Flinders St, CBD), an old converted theater that’s one of the country’s most beautiful venues. If you’re just after a drink, we recommend a trip to the Rooftop Bar (Swanston St, CBD), which combines cheapish drinks, a beautiful view, and a suitably chic crowd. There’s also a cinema during summer. From there, you can mosey down to the Toff in Town, which is in the same building and plays most excellent disco after midnight. And for the most gloriously Melbourne experience of them all, visit the Croft Institute in the CBD, which is a super-cool nightclub hidden away down two obscure laneways in Chinatown. Just ask someone to show you the way.

Where to eat

Our all-time favorite Melbourne institution is The Waiter’s Club, an excellent no-frills Italian restaurant that’s so named because it was where the waiters from every other restaurant in town ate when their shifts finished. It’s hidden down, yes, a laneway — specifically, Meyers Place in the CBD. Elsewhere, Mexican food is all the rage these days — the best you’ll find is at Mamasita on Collins Street in the CBD; although you should be prepared to wait for a table. We’re also big fans of swanky Spanish restaurant MoVida, along with its more casual bistro section (called MoVida Next Door — it is, literally, next door). There are plentiful good Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, while Sydney Road in Brunswick contains a ludicrous amount of restaurants of all nationalities (Turkish food is a particular favorite).

Where to head from here

Melbourne’s position on Port Phillip Bay means that you need to drive for a while to reach any surf beaches, but the drive is totally worth it — especially if you decide to head down the coast via the famous Great Ocean Road, which is one of the world’s best scenic drives. If you go far enough, you’ll see the Twelve Apostles, a spectacular natural rock formation that’s unfortunately crumbling into the sea (there are less than twelve left these days, sadly). Animal lovers, meanwhile, will want to hire a car and head north to the beautiful Healesville Sanctuary. (Yes, there are koalas).

Brisbane

Once a sleepy regional city, now Australia’s fastest-growing metropolis, Brisbane is in the middle of an ongoing transformation, which makes it a fascinating place to visit. Apart from Darwin, it’s also Australia’s most tropical capital, a verdantly pretty city where the vegetation is lush and the weather is always lazily beautiful.

Where to go

The city’s set around the winding folds of the Brisbane River, with the CBD set on a roughly triangular peninsula. Amongst other things, the center of town features some beautiful colonial architecture. Northeast of there is the Fortitude Valley, which is the city’s main entertainment district, and of which we’ll speak more shortly. Across the river is the pleasant suburban expanse of South Brisbane, home to the cultural hotspot that is the Queenland Performing Arts Centre, or QPAC, and also the city’s iconic cricket ground (yes, you may well have to learn to understand cricket if you visit Australia).

What to do

Relax. The locals are some of the most laid-back people you’ll find anywhere, and their city embodies that lifestyle. But with Brisbane’s rapidly growing population, there’s suddenly a wealth of things to do in the city. The transformation is embodied by QPAC (above), a huge multidisciplinary performing arts complex that was completed in 1985 and has since become the local cultural hub. Nature lovers will also want to spend a goodly amount of time in the city’s lovely Botanic Gardens, which reach right down to the river and encompass some beautifully atmospheric mangrove swampland.

Where to go out

The Fortitude Valley is where you’ll find the lions’ share of the music venues in Brisbane, mainly because it was designated in 2002 as a special entertainment precinct, exempt from noise-restriction laws and other such annoyances. This means that you can quite happily stumble from seeing a band to grabbing a meal at one of the area’s variety of restaurants or hitting one of the slew of bars along Brunswick Street, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that’s the Valley’s main drag. We’re particularly partial to Woodland, which is a great little venue hidden in a laneway called Coniston Lane, and also the Black Bear Lounge, which is the replacement for recently closed live-music institution the Troubadour. Beyond the Valley, West End is an upcoming alternative for bar action, and is a pleasantly short walk from the QPAC complex.

Where to eat

The Valley has the largest variety of places — the decidedly ritzy Cloudland seems to be the venue of choice for those with expensive tastes right now. Elsewhere, the South Bank of the Brisbane river is home to a pretty decent range of eating options in its restaurant precinct — we gorged ourselves at Ahmet’s Turkish Restaurant last time we were in town, and there’s also Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Italian, and various other options. The Mexican-food craze seems to have made its way up to Brisbane, too — we particularly like the puntastically titled Tuckeria (“tucker” is old Australian slang for food) a few doors down. Coffee lovers will want to visit Jamie’s on James Street for the best espresso in town, while more upscale types will enjoy a trip to the swanky wine bars at the rather exclusive London Woolstores in Teneriffe, to the east of the Fortitude Valley.

Where to head from here

First and foremost, there’s the unparalleled natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef, the remarkable coral reef and marine ecosystem that stretches along 1,600 miles of the Queensland coast. No visit to this part of Australia is complete without seeing this natural wonder of the world. For nature lovers, there’s also Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island and home to a remarkable diversity of fauna and flora. If you’re partial to resort towns, you can decamp to the Gold Coast for a day — it’s Australia’s answer to Miami, with a shoreline lined with hotels and places to party it up — or head north to the Sunshine Coast and Noosa Heads. If you don’t mind doing a bit more driving, you can even make it all the way down to the gorgeous regional center that is Byron Bay, a hippie enclave that’s set on a series of spectacular beaches.

Perth

The world’s most isolated city (according to Bill Bryson, anyway) is also one of its most pleasant, home to some of Australia’s best beaches — and, y’know, that‘s saying something. It’s not just the beaches, though; the mining boom of the 2000s has seen a lot of investment pour into Perth, and it shows. The city feels like a place on the rise, but also retains the pleasant intimacy of a big country town — people are friendly, hospitable, and only too eager to show you what their city has to offer.

Where to go

Perth is smaller than any of the aforementioned cities, and is a great place to drive around and explore. You’ll most likely end up staying in the city center, but it’s worth hiring a car and cruising about — the suburbs are where it’s at, particularly Leederville and Mount Lawley, both of which are pleasantly laid-back and full of interesting people. There’s also the picturesque and history-laden borough of Fremantle, which sits on a little peninsula southwest of the city and is definitely worth a visit.

What to do

Most definitely head to one of the innumerable beaches. Nowhere else in the world, we reckon, can you drive for five minutes from wherever you’re staying in the city and find yourself on a pristine surf beach that you’ve got all to yourself — the gorgeous Cottesloe Beach is a particular favorite, but they’re all good. When you’re not at the beach, you can catch an outdoor show in Kings Park, or just get lost in its rambling surrounds. Head on down to Fremantle for a day, and visit the Little Creatures brewery, a burgeoning local microbrewery with a national reputation. And then go to the beach again.

Where to go out

Northbridge is Perth’s best known bar district, but we generally prefer to hit the town in Leederville or Mount Lawley, where the atmosphere is a little more relaxed. Perth also has a reputation for producing quality music — Flavorpill favorites the Drones are originally from there, as was late AC/DC singer Bon Scott and a host of others. There are plenty of places around town to catch bands; Northbridge is home to the Amplifier and various others, while there are also several venues in Fremantle. Meanwhile, there’s a host of new, intimate bars that have benefited from a law change that’s made it easier for little establishments to operate in Perth. Our current favorite is Double Lucky, a new-ish venue in Leederville that has fancy cocktails and a casual atmosphere.

Where to eat

As with bars, there’s a decent concentration of restaurants and pubs in both Mount Lawley and Leederville. If you’re in the latter, definitely head to tapas bar Duende for a drink and a selection of Spanish nibbles to start the evening. In Fremantle, the aforementioned Little Creatures is also a great place to eat (and, of course, the beer is pretty fantastic), and it’s right on the water, making it a great place to sit and watch the sun set. This is a quintessentially Perth-esque pleasure that results from it being the only major city in Australia set on west-facing ocean coastline. In a similar vein, we’re also partial to the lovely Barchetta in Cottesloe — book a table for sunset, and rejoice at being alive.

Where to head from here

You can’t visit Perth without driving down to Margaret River, the coastal wine-making region that produces some 20% of Australia’s premium wines and operates as a mecca for vinophiles and surfers alike. (It’s also home to some pretty spectacular caves.) If you’ve got more than a day, we highly recommend driving up to Monkey Mia, which is a good 500 miles north of Perth, but rewards persistence with the opportunity to swim with the bottlenose dolphins who come to the shore every day.

Adelaide

Perhaps the least-known of Australia’s major cities, Adelaide is a relatively small and easy-to-navigate city that rewards the curious with a selection of fine beaches (yes, there’s a theme developing here) and a vibrant cultural scene. It’s also well-placed to use as a jumping-off point for trips into the outback — and, as we’ll see, it’s the place to go if you like wine. Lots of wine.

Where to go

Adelaide’s small CBD is easy to get around — it’s set out on a grid, like Melbourne — and it’s where most of the action happens. Its beaches aren’t quite as close to town as Perth’s, but they’re most definitely worth visiting; they’re about a half-hour’s drive west of the city center. The Adelaide Hills are just out of town and make for a beautiful drive.

What to do

Artistically inclined types will enjoy the city — Adelaide’s biannual arts festival is the country’s biggest and one of the world’s most respected, and even when the festival’s not happening, its influence is felt in the disproportionately large amount of culture (especially theater) to be found. Go vintage shopping; Adelaide’s vintage shops are the finest in the country. Drink lots of wine. Visit the National Wine Centre of Australia (that’s it in the photo above — see how the walls are shaped like the inside of a barrel?) Drink more wine to celebrate. And if you happen to be in town for WOMADelaide, then rejoice — you’ve just wandered into the Southern Hemisphere’s finest celebration of world music.

Where to go out

It’s called the City of Churches, but never fear, Adelaide isn’t all just about keeping the faith. The city’s bars are largely concentrated in the city center, making it a fine place for a bar-hopping evening. Our favorite haunt is The Dragonfly in Victoria Square — a pleasingly eclectic venue that combines exhibitions, DJs, and a rocking kitchen. (And if it’s good enough for Björk, LCD Soundsystem, and Arcade Fire — all of whom partied it up here after the Big Day Out festival a few years ago — it’s good enough for us.) Also doing the hybrid venue thing is the Collect Gallery in Clubhouse Lane, just off Hindley Street, which is a fine place for a drink at night and a gallery during the day. If you’re after something a little more upscale, you can go retro-’20s French cabaret style at La Bohème on Grote Street or The Apothecary on Hindley Street — a fancy wine bar/restaurant that offers a pretty exhaustive wine list. And speaking of wine…

Where to eat

Adelaide calls itself Australia’s wine capital, and it’s not an idle boast. Several of Australia’s great wine regions are close by — the Barossa and Clare Valleys, along with McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, are all within a couple of hundred miles of the city. This means that there’s a surfeit of good wine to be had in Adelaide and… sorry, what? Oh, food? Yes, there are many places to eat, too. You have to wash that wine down with something, after all. The city is home to plenty of food options, most of them clustered along Rundle Street. Gouger Street is the place for Asian cuisine, while if you’re more inclined to cooking yourself, the historic Adelaide Central Market is a fine place to score all manner of mouth-watering delicacies.

Where to head from here

Adelaide is a couple of hours’ drive from the Coorong, a magnificent series of interconnected estuaries and lagoons that provides the habitat for a wealth of bird life and is one of Australia’s great natural marvels. You can drive down for a day and take a look on foot, or stay for a while and explore in a four-wheeler or a boat. Either way, the wetlands are unique, beautiful, and well worth visiting. You can also visit the aforementioned wine regions — again, make sure someone stays sober enough to drive! — and you’re just a short boat ride from Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third-largest island and a stunning wilderness sanctuary where you can see koalas, sea lions and, yes, kangaroos. And finally, you’re also well-placed to take a trip into the outback — you can drive up into the Flinders Ranges, home to some of Australia’s most starkly beautiful landscapes, unique wildlife and wide, wide open spaces. Just make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.