Get ready for a flight of fancy as Out Travel the System takes you Down Under. Yes that’s right, host Nisreene Atassi is taking you to Australia on our latest deep dive into a destination.
Thanks to the help of Grace Rietbergen, Associate Market Manager – Canberra & Hobart at Expedia, and longtime travel journalist Celeste Mitchell, this episode will take you through the huge range of options to fully explore Australia.
Listen in as they debate the restaurant scenes in Sydney and Melbourne, detour through wine country and cocktail culture, and dive into the huge range of delicious experiences available in Oz – how about drinking sparkling wine and eating oysters while standing in the ocean?
They also explore the beauty of slow travel, the power of connection with Indigenous culture, and even why visitors should consider taking in a Aussie rules football match – it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Put aside some of the animals you may have associated Australia with, and instead think about diving into experiences with whale sharks, humpback whales, kangaroos, and quokkas – see why Nissy is literally squealing with delight over the last on the list!
All You Need to Know About Visiting Australia
Nisreene: It’s time for another destination deep dive. This time, it’s all about the land Down Under. You know, Australia has always been on my travel bucket list and for whatever reason, I have just never been able to make it happen. But it’s a place that I constantly dream about. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System. Forget about what you think you know about Australia from the Crocodile Dundee movies or the Crocodile Hunter TV show. And forget about me doing a ridiculous imitation of an Australian accent. This episode is all about finding our way through modern Australia and its ancient Indigenous history, its stunning, natural beauty and everything else that it has to offer. So settle in as we offer up inspiration for travel to Oz at some point in the future. I have two guests with me for this journey to Australia. First, I want to introduce you all to Celeste Mitchell. Celeste is a long time travel journalist based in Queensland, who advocates for slow travel. More on that shortly. In the meantime, welcome Celeste to the show. So great to have you.
Celeste: Hi Nissy. Thank you so much for having me.
Nisreene: Also with us today is Grace Rietbergen. She’s an Associate Market Manager for Expedia in Australia, focusing on the Canberra and Hobart area. Hi Grace. Welcome to the show.
Grace: Thank you so much for having me.
Nisreene: Clearly, Australia is a big country to tackle, almost maybe too big for just one episode, but we’re going to give it a shot. Maybe you could give us just a little bit of guidance on sort of where to start. Does it make more sense to think about Australia in terms of different regions or specific cities?
Grace: Generally, we do break things out by state, depending on what you’re wanting to see and do. Most people would fly into the east coast, like Sydney or Melbourne and then kind of branch out from there.
Celeste: Is it about getting you to the Great Barrier Reef? Is it about connecting with Indigenous culture? It’s really interesting hearing international visitors sometimes think that they’ll just be able to flip from here to there and take off all of these things, but just the sheer distance between these locations can be really overwhelming. So, not trying to bite off too much in the first go, I would say.
Nisreene: That makes sense. So just to give context, Celeste, if I were going to fly from the east coast to the west coast, how long of a flight would that be?
Celeste: So it’s similar to the United States, actually. It’s about five and a half hours. And obviously if you’re driving distances, I mean, even in Queensland, I’m near Brisbane, if I want to fly up to Cairns and to go to the Great Barrier Reef, that’s like about a two hour flight.
Celeste: There’s still some distances to cover off even within the states.
Nisreene: There’s a game that I love to play on these destination deep dives that I think helps to give people some context on where they might want to go depending on the type of vacation that they’re looking to achieve. So it’s a bit of a rapid fire game. I’m going to name a category and I want each of you to sort of name the city or region that first comes to mind. Celeste, you get to go first. Here we go. Beach.
Celeste: I’m going to say Northern New South Wales. You might’ve heard of Byron Bay around that area.
Nisreene: Family- friendly.
Celeste: Gold Coast.
Nisreene: Outdoor adventure.
Celeste: Tropical North Queensland, so around that Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest area or otherwise Tasmania for sure.
Nisreene: Nightlife and dining.
Nisreene: Heritage and culture.
Celeste: For me, I would go straight to Uluru. It’s about yeah, connecting with Indigenous culture.
Nisreene: Love that. All right. Okay, Grace, you’re up. Here we go. Beach.
Nisreene: Family- friendly.
Grace: The Grampians.
Nisreene: Outdoor adventure.
Grace: Great Barrier Reef.
Nisreene: Nightlife and dining.
Grace: I have to say Melbourne as well.
Nisreene: Okay. Heritage and culture.
Grace: Northern territory.
Nisreene: All right. I a thousand percent would have thought one of you would have said Sydney for nightlife and dining, because when you think about Australia, Sydney just always seems to be the city that people talk about the most. So really surprising to hear you both say Melbourne.
Celeste: Sydney would definitely be my next backup. And it was a tough call coming between those two. And I’ve lived in Sydney for quite a while, actually only traveled to Melbourne a handful of times. But I think Sydney is kind of like the beautiful, flashy city that has absolutely so much culture and nightlife and dining, but Melbourne’s just kind of that little bit more underground. And it has like an amazing dining scene and really strong art scene as well.
Nisreene: Yeah. What do you think Grace?
Grace: I have to agree and I actually have lived in both cities and my partner’s family is all in Melbourne. And my family’s all in Sydney. So, this is a very topical question. Sydney, you stand there, right? It’s the Harbor. It’s beautiful. It’s immense. Like you have to take it all in. You go to Melbourne, and as Celeste said, it’s like that underground scene. There’s really cool bars, rooftop and underground. Melbourne is where you’ll find the restaurants that we have on the world’s best list. The chefs are just so competitive and people really take hospitality as a career rather than a job in their university or study days. Like it’s a career choice in Melbourne, so they really do it well.
Nisreene: Nice, good to know. Well, I want to talk about the places that you both mentioned for outdoor adventure because seeing the outdoor beauty of Australia is, I think a really big reason why people do want to travel there.
Grace: I mentioned the Grampians. I’m a huge advocate for the Grampians. I think it’s just an incredible place to explore with waterfalls and hiking and there’s kangaroos for days. The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, so not far from Melbourne, it’s an immense coastline with really incredible coastal formations and yeah, there’s the Twelve Apostles and you can camp under a koala sanctuary. There’s so much there.
Nisreene: Oh wow.
Grace: On the east, you kind of get the white sand. Over on the west coast, it’s like this really photogenic, I would almost say red sand. There’s just so much to do over there. And it’s very pristine. It is really good for outdoor adventure in terms of just exploring and getting on the road and can even swim with manta rays and whale sharks near Ningaloo, it’s something that you can’t really do anywhere else in the world.
Celeste: There’s actually a period of time over there in Ningaloo where, if you time it right, you can swim with the whale sharks, but also with humpback whales as well.
Nisreene: Oh my gosh.
Celeste: Yeah. There’s a handful of licenses where they can take you sometime in the mid year because the humpbacks are e usually from around June to October. So just that crossover period with the whale sharks.
Nisreene: Absolutely amazing. Celeste, are there any other really interesting destinations or places that you can think of that you think would be really great for outdoor adventure when it comes to visiting Australia?
Celeste: Basically anywhere you travel in Australia, you have an opportunity to experience like an amazing national park, connect with wildlife and just to see these beautiful wide open spaces. On the topic of whales, for example, in Queensland, you’ve got the Fraser Coast and you may have heard of Fraser Island. It’s the world’s largest sand island. It’s one of our world heritage sites. It actually has like the purest strain of dingoes that live on the island. And you can see them when you’re over there. Off the Fraser Coast around Hervey Bay is where they’re really renowned for whale watching. So other places in the country, you’ll catch the humpbacks and you’ll be able to see them on their migration, but I’ve been on boats in Hervey Bay where the whales literally come up and almost play with the boats. Like they’ll pop up their head. You could reach out and touch them almost if you wanted to.
Grace: Oh, wow.
Nisreene: Oh my goodness. That sounds so amazing.
Celeste: It’s just such an incredible feeling like, you’ve got this whale that’s as large as the boat, sometimes. Within the last few years, they’ve actually opened it up that now you can get into the water with them as well. So I haven’t done that yet, but I’m dying to try that.
Nisreene: What’s interesting about how both of you have been talking about outdoor adventure is that wildlife seems to be so intrinsically connected to a lot of the sort of beautiful landscape. Do you think there’s a lot of people who come in just because they want to immerse themselves in sort of like the wildlife?
Celeste: There’s Aussies that have never seen a red back spider. I’ve never seen an echidna. I haven’t actually seen a wombat in the wild yet, even though I was in Tazzie recently and I was really hoping to see one. Recently I was in South Australia and traveled down the York peninsula and there’s a beautiful national park down there where there were just emus everywhere. Emus and their babies crossing the road. So you can have those incidental encounters with wildlife. It’s also really set up so that in Alice Springs, in the Northern territory, for an example, you can visit kangaroos and have a cuddle with the little joeys. And then in Brisbane, there’s the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where you can go and cuddle a koala and learn about preservation of their habitat and be involved in that as well.
Celeste: And that’s obviously a big focus following all of the bushfires that we had a couple of years ago. There’s some really amazing tools that you can now join to go and take part in tree replanting, and sure you can go to Australia Zoo and you can pay for a koala cuddle photo, and that’s great if you’re very short on time, but you know, there’s also a lot of different ways that you can interact with beautiful Australian wildlife as well.
Grace: Yeah. Unfortunately, koalas love eucalyptus trees and they’re very flammable. There’s a huge focus in Australia around protecting all of our wildlife, especially cause I guess koalas are so photogenic. They’re definitely the face of that campaign. I have to mention in this segment, quokkas.
Celeste: I want to see a quokka.
Grace: I am so dying to meet one. You get on a little ferry over to Rottnest Island from Perth and it’s this island that is just completely inhabited by quokkas and that these little furry creatures and they let you get quite close safely. They’re looked after very well. Google a photo, if you haven’t seen one.
Celeste: You can get Chris Hemsworth with a quokka.
Grace: Oh yeah, that’s a good one.
Nisreene: Oh my God. This is the cutest little thing. Oh my God. And here is a picture of Chris Hemsworth with a quokka. Oh my goodness gracious. Look at these little things.
Grace: Yeah. The wildlife in Australia is so special and you can go out into the wilderness and really see them in their natural habitat.
Nisreene:Yeah. I love that. When we come back, we’re going to talk about slow travel and how travel is continuing to evolve in Australia. See you on the other side. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System. When you like and subscribe to our show, it means you have a perfect travel companion right in your pocket. Whether you’re looking for general travel inspiration or specific details on a destination, we have you covered. Catch up on our past episodes this season, featuring the charm of a lake vacation or getting the inside scoop on booking a Disney trip. There are more tips and tricks ahead as we guide you through where the right opportunity may be for you to splurge on a big vacation. Let us know what you’re thinking with the review of Out Travel the System or by messaging us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. We’re @ Expedia.
Nisreene: Okay. We are back with Expedia’s Grace Rietbergen and travel journalist, Celeste Mitchell. I want to make sure that we also talk about wine country. Where do you even start? What part of Australia is considered wine country
Celeste: Almost everywhere these days. South Australia is definitely one of the most well set up places to tour different wine regions. It’s all really accessible, super close to Adelaide, which is a great little city as well. Particularly if you’re a fan of red wine, this is where you can go to the Barossa and have your beautiful, big Aussie Shiraz. There’s lots of different regions with all of their specialties. Go to the Clare Valley. There’s actually a Riesling Trail. You can follow so you can hire some bikes and go for a ride and stop along the way and try different wineries there. Lovely restaurants to sit out on the deck, overlooking the vines and have a lovely lunch. I’m dying to get to the Margaret River. Not only for the wines, but the beaches over there as well just look incredible.
Nisreene: Ooh. Grace, tell me about the cocktail scene in Australia and what you think maybe makes it a little bit more unique than other places in the world.
Grace: It’s a huge trend in a lot of bars and even pubs now, but you can get like Aperol spritz on tap or espresso martini on tap. I think it kind of started because we have a really cool microbrewery scene in Australia too. And so more and more was getting put on tap and they realized we could also put cocktails on tap. Some pubs or bars, they change the cocktail depending on the month. We have some really cool gin distilleries in Australia. So I think gin inspires a lot of cocktails here as well.
Celeste: The non- alcoholic scene is really growing here as well. So we’ve got distillers that are now specializing in bringing out non- alcoholic gins and different spirits. And even in Melbourne recently, it was like the first non- alcoholic bar that has opened. They might have like one alcoholic option on the whole menu, but it’s essentially a non- alcoholic cocktail bar. So you can go out, and you can still enjoy that scene without having to drink.
Nisreene: That’s nice. You know, we absolutely also have to talk about food too, because it’s kind of my thing. So Grace, I want to hear from you, what are some of the quintessential Aussie things that people have to eat when they’re in town?
Grace: My mind instantly goes to Tim Tams and Vegemite. Tim Tams are like a chocolate biscuit. Vegemite, Aussies love it. It’s like a yeast paste actually that you put on your toast. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s made from Cooper’s beer discards. So definitely those. Kangaroo. We’re one of the only countries that eat our national animal. It’s done really well in a lot of places now. It’s definitely up and coming on the restaurant scene.
Celeste: Typical Aussie food, meat pies are right up there. When I was in Tasmania, and I’m not sure whether this is actually a good thing, but scallop pies are a big thing down there. Yeah. Sort of done with curry powder. You can try that while you’re in Tasmania. But I think it’s moved beyond there, because if I think about what’s quintessentially Australian now, for me, it’s like eating fresh seafood near the water or amazing Asian influenced cuisine, avocado on toast at the local cafe. Like that feels more Australian to me.
Grace: In Tasmania, you can actually put on these big overalls and go out not far from Hobart and you actually stand at this table in the oyster farm with a personal guide and eat these oysters fresh from the water whilst drinking local sparkling wine. And it’s the absolute picturesque experience. It’s a bucket list item.
Nisreene: Oh my goodness. So you’re literally standing in the water at a table. Somebody is getting the oysters and you stay in the water at the table drinking the sparkling wine and eating the oysters.
Grace: Yeah. And you don’t get wet cause these overalls are those dry suits. So you can go in the middle of winter and it’s still a beautiful experience, if not cooler because it’s foggy. And it’s just so awesome.
Celeste: Bruny Island, which also isn’t far from Hobart, you drive about an hour and catch a ferry over. You can actually just go and get drive- through oysters. So you just literally drive through and get your tray of fresh oysters ready to eat. Then they’ve also got amazing cheese that’s made on the island and drink it with the beer that’s brewed locally. And then my favorite thing over there was there’s this great little honesty box at one of the lane ways. It’s actually an old fridge, like a vintage fridge that’s just sitting on the corner of this dirt track and you open it up and the local baker puts in his wood- fired sourdough bread there every day. Put in your money, grab out this loaf of sourdough. And it’s like, honestly, the best bread I’ve ever eaten. I just dream about it.
Grace: That’s so cool.
Nisreene: I want to make sure we touch on some other really important pieces about traveling to Australia. So, Celeste, slow travel is something that you’ve been really focused on in the recent years. Can you take our listeners through the concept of it and why you feel like it’s such a big component of visiting Australia?
Celeste: Absolutely. I think you could call it a trend now, but I think it’s just a natural progression of where we’re all at. It’s not about rushing around and ticking off all the sites. Particularly in a destination like Australia, you really want to take your time. Australia is so well set up for road trips, but also camper vanning. Just maybe do one thing a day. It’s when you actually have time to sit still a little bit, to maybe chat with the locals a little bit longer when you’re in that cafe, or to just see things while you’re driving or walking that you might have just rushed past in the past. I think it’s how you would get the most out of a visit to Australia for sure.
Nisreene: Typically, I would say you can always go back, right? But Australia is one of those places where for so many people, especially coming from the States, is quite far. So how do you find the balance between doing that slow travel, but also recognizing that Australia is not a destination that you’re going to be able to come back to repeatedly. What’s your advice for everybody, Celeste? It’s like a really tough scenario to navigate I feel like.
Celeste: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think it takes some planning. On a really simple scale, I would say maybe land in Sydney, take the ferry ride across the harbor, head out to Bondi, check out all of those things that you want to see. But then maybe you’ll head somewhere and you’ll just stay in a really beautiful kind of off- grid cabin and have even a couple of nights somewhere where you might wake up and there’s kangaroos, or you can just have that opportunity to just decompress for a couple of days. And the other thing that we do really well here is multi- day hikes where you still feel like you’ve accomplished something by the end of it. And you’ve seen a destination, but you’ve seen it in an entirely new way. One of my absolute favorite trips I’ve done in Australia is the Larapinta Trail. It’s in the Northern territory, not far from Alice Springs. It’s about a five day hike, but you don’t have to do it all self- sufficient, you can do it with a company who look after everything and it’s quite luxurious, really like, yes, you’re walking through the day, but you’re only carrying your own water and everything else is prepared for you. And then you arrive each night and they’ve got these great semi- permanent campsites set up. You know, you have your stretcher beds, all your meals are cooked for you, just such an incredible way to immerse with that landscape and the Indigenous culture in Northern territory.
Nisreene: Yeah. I love that.
Grace: I also wouldn’t rule out like internal flights. A lot of things are super close to the capital cities. And so if you don’t have the time to hire a camper or a car, we have some great regional airlines. We have low cost carriers. You can just jet between the cities. That’s also another reason why a lot of people come to Australia on a working holiday or for longer to really get grassroots into the country and experience everything they want.
Nisreene: Celeste, you touched really quickly on immersion into Indigenous culture. What are some ways that people who are coming to visit Australia can immerse themselves more?
Celeste: There’s such an incredible suite of different tours and experiences where you can really connect pretty much wherever you are in Australia, whether that’s a walking tour through the rocks in Sydney to learn about the indigenous history there and understand the Sydney Harbor from an Indigenous point of view, or in north Queensland, near Port Douglas, there’s an amazing tour that I did many, many years ago. You kind of walk through the mangroves and the mud flats with a couple of Indigenous brothers and learn how to spear in the traditional way and go looking for mud crabs and dig fresh mangrove mussels out of the sand. And then you go back to their house and cook up a feast afterwards. There’s multi- day Indigenous led walks that you can do. There’s four- wheel driving trips that’ll take you to these incredible places with beautiful natural rock pools and Indigenous rock art galleries that are just really not seen by many at all. There’s actually a website called Welcome to Country, which has a lot of these tools and experiences on its own there. So it’s making it really easy. And also, so you can understand when they’re Indigenous owned and Indigenous operated as well. And I think that’s really important factor too.
Nisreene: Yeah, absolutely. We’ll make sure to link to some of this stuff in our show notes as well. Grace, what do you think about this?
Grace: Yeah, it’s becoming a huge focus. Expedia Australia actually just joined the Reconciliation Action Plan. We’re now an organization that has a committed reconciliation action plan in the tourism industry. So a lot of our employees are really enjoying learning about Indigenous tourism operators and really those authentic experiences that we can then give customers. I recently learned about a field of lights in Ayers Rock, which is seven football fields of a light display that you experience once the sun goes down in the Northern territory, which I would say is one of our most culturally rich states, its immense power. I don’t know. It’s so moving to really learn these things and to have that connection to country and connection to land. People are really enjoying now witnessing that part of our country as Australians. I can’t wait to open our borders and share that with everyone around the world as well.
Nisreene: I also want to do some nuts and bolts travel planning stuff here. When is a good time of year to visit Australia? And we should probably talk about the difference in weather patterns here between the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Grace: Yeah, our Australian summer, which for most of the world is their winter. So that Christmas period, that’s peak peak season for most of Australia. Coming in that time, like you’re also competing with Australians who are on their school holiday break. So working holiday breaks. So it’s great to be here then. Like you can do New Year’s Eve in Darling Harbor, the bridge lighting up with fireworks. It’s so captivating. It’s really, really a cool experience. And then definitely a bucket list item. When we think of Australia being so large, the northern part, what we call the top end of Australia, their dry season is our winter, which is that sort of May till September window. So the best time you want to be visiting the top end of Australia is definitely in that winter period. So I would say there’s no wrong time to come.
Nisreene: If you’re looking to be a little bit more cost efficient, December is probably not the best time to come. You might want to explore late January, February timeframe it sounds like.
Grace: Yeah, or September. September is a really great month. I think there’s a lot of events in spring. If you want to experience like traditional Aussie rules football, that’s when all the finals are on. So you can go to like a sold out crowd at the MCG in Melbourne, like in the heart of the city. I think it’s still at the end of the dry season in the top end. So that’s a good window. And I don’t think you’d be paying top top dollar if you come outside of the school holiday window.
Celeste: If you come in like March or even April, in a large part of the country, it’s still beautiful and warm depending on where you’re from. It can be a little bit hot in certain destinations in our summer for some visitors. There’s probably less humidity if you’re sort of heading more from that March onwards period.
Nisreene: Given the distances involved, visiting Australia generally is not going to be a cheap proposition for people from North America. Can you think of any way people can hack their Australia travel budgets a bit?
Celeste: If you’re going to a lot of destinations where you’re going to be doing a lot of tours, like if you’re going to be planning to head out to the Great Barrier Reef or you want to do a lot of day trips, maybe balancing that with some self- contained accommodation where you can go to the local market, do a little bit of cooking yourself without having to buy out all of your meals. And looking at places where you can base yourself a little bit and potentially just get around more on foot or public transport rather than needing a higher car the whole time.
Grace: Part of our capital cities, unique selling points if you could call them that, public transport almost forms part of their identity. So Melbourne, the tram network is really something that is iconic to Melbourne and there’s actually a free city circle tram that goes around Melbourne for tourists. And in Sydney, public transport also includes the ferries on the harbor. So if you want to get over to Manly, for example, from the city, you can get on a ferry and it’s public transport rights. They have a new light rail now in Brisbane up to the Gold Coast. So just taking advantage of the public transport as well. We also have some really great mid- range hotels. I know plenty of international travelers that have come to Australia, both family and friends, who have embraced that camping culture to not only meet people, but to save money and also experience the country in a more grassroots manner.
Nisreene: Before we wrap up, I want to actually borrow a question that we’ve been using for our Only In series, which has been focused on U.S. cities and what makes them so special. But I want to actually do it with Australia as well. What are some of the things that you can really only do in Australia? Celeste, why don’t you go first.
Celeste: Learning to surf at Bondi Beach or at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast. Learning to surf while you’re in Australia is a pretty cool thing to do.
Grace: Well you can only experience the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The only natural living organism you can see from space, so definitely on the list. You can only experience Aussie rules football games in Australia, which are a big part of sporting culture here. In terms of culture and Indigenous, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander culture, experiencing that is so unique to Australia. Like getting to hear the didgeridoo or if you’re lucky enough to witness a smoking ceremony, it’s very unique to Australia in terms of how old our first nations people having inhabited Australia, like their culture is so ancient.
Nisreene: Amazing. Well, what a great way to wrap up the show. My guests today have been travel journalists, Celeste Mitchell, and Expedia’s very own Grace Rietbergen. This has been so inspiring. I am just absolutely itching at the chance to come to Australia now. So thank you guys so much for coming on the show today.
Celeste: Thanks Nissy. I hope you can get here sooner than you think.
Grace: Yeah. Come on over. We want everyone to come visit.
Nisreene: I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System, brought to you by Expedia. Happy travels. Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our showrunner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan. Our associate producer is Katie Doten. With sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.