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    Catch two extremes in Australia—from the hot Northern Territory to the scenic beaches and desert climes and stark landscapes of the sleepy towns of New South Wales

    New South Wales
    There’s more to the land Down Under than flight-hopping between Sydney’s Opera House, Brisbane’s night life and Melbourne’s vibrant food scene. On our last visit to Australia, we chose a scenic road trip up the New South Wales coast. While the 900-odd kilometres from Sydney to Brisbane can be completed in 11 hours, we suggest spending a day each discovering three picturesque beach towns on the way—Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay. Besides the surf and sand, they offer farm breaks, delicious organic produce and even some beer making. And to break the monotony of the road, pack in pit-stops—from hidden beaches to boutique hotels (like Bells at Killcare, bellsatkillcare.com.au). Here’s to some fun motoring.

    Port Macquarie
    (four hours from Sydney)

    Byron Bay 2The sleepy town takes its own time doing things. As the elderly amble along the promenade and marina (it’s a popular retirement destination), youngsters choose between a spot of surfing at its 18 beaches or a picnic with friends and seagulls. We try something different—a morning at the local Koala Hospital. The only one of its kind in Australia, it takes in animals that are injured or sick. Be warned, cuddling is not appreciated. They keep the koalas as wild as possible. But you can join the ‘Feed, Walk and Talk’ tour, every day at 3 pm (koalahospital.or.au). On the way back, drop by Ricardoes Tomatoes where you can pick fresh strawberries and tomatoes from their hydroponic greenhouses. Make sure you stock up on their homemade relishes, sauces and tapenades, too (starting from $5 a jar, ricardoes.com).
    Accommodation: The Rydges Port Macquarie has spacious rooms (from $164 a night) and is right by the Hastings River. Details: rydges.com
    Where to eat: Swing by the one-hatted (local Michelin equivalent) The Stunned Mullet. We recommend the Glacier 51 toothfish or the pork belly with seared scallops (meal for two at $140 approx). Details: thestunnedmullet.com.au
    Things to do
    Try a wine-and cheese tasting at Cassegrain Wines (cassegrainwines.com.au)

    Learn how beer is made at Black Duck Brewery. The free tour ends with a tasting and a ploughman’s platter (blackduckbrewery.com.au)

    On Sunday, head to Near River Produce for a tour of the organic farm. Feed chickens, collect eggs and even pick your lunch from the garden (nearriverproduce.com)

     Coffs Harbour

    (two hours from Port Macquarie)

    Coffs Harbour 3The beaches here are beautiful—wild, expansive and a paradise for surfing and kayaking. But what the area is really known for is its banana plantations, blueberry fields and fresh seafood. So when not catching the waves, we suggest you relax over some cold beer and a large plate of oysters or a grilled barramundi at the Park Beach Surf Club Restaurant & Bar (meal for two at $110 approx, surfclubparkbeach.com). It not only gives you a great view of the beach, but as the popular local hangout, you get to absorb some of the joie de vivre. A great stop for kids is the Big Banana Fun Park. With water slides, toboggan, laser tag, ice rink and more, it’s a fun day out (tickets from $10 onwards). And in the evening, how about a picturesque ride on the beach—atop a camel? Not what you’d expect to be doing on a beach, but it’s fun nevertheless ($25 onwards for a half-hour ride, coffscoastcamels.com.au).
    Accommodation: The serviced apartments at Wyndham Vacation Resort are great for a family stay (&165 onwards, wyndhamap.com)
    Where to eat: Overlooking the Solitary Islands Marine Park, the new Latitude 30 bar and restaurant serves great seafood. Try the seafood platter (from $130) with lobster, Balmain bugs, prawns, oysters and swimmer crabs. Details: latitude30.com.au

    Things to do
    Go herb, vegetable or fruit picking at Northbank Community Gardens in Bellingen. Do leave a donation on your way out. (northbankgarden.org.au)
    Watch aboriginal elders trap fish or go on a bush food medicine tour at the Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre (free entry, yarrawarra.org)

     Byron Bay

    (Under three hours from Coffs Harbour)

    sunset_over_kata_tjutaAustralia’s easternmost town, it is chic with a distinct hippie vibe. Though there is plenty of surfing to be done, this is the last stop on your road trip before you hit the Gold Coast. So why not take it easy? The pretty little town, with its white wooden store fronts, is a great place to shop. Pick up artisanal chocolates, handmade porcelain or the latest designs from their numerous boutiques. There are also plenty of local markets, like the Byron Bay Market we visited (every first Sunday). It’s a great place to pick up local craft—but be warned, thanks to the hippie culture, we also came across a lot of ‘Made in India’ products! Another fun way to spend a day is to visit Tropical Food World. A short drive out of town, the farming operation is a tourist attraction because of its acres of fruit trees from across the world. It’s a great place to pick up gifts, too—from avocado oil to farm-fresh macadamia nuts (from $14, tropicalfruitworld.com.au).

    Accommodation: The Byron at Byron Resort and Spa is plush, nestled amidst 45 acres of rainforest, and great for honeymooners ($390 onwards, thebyronatbyron.com.au)
    Where to eat: Three Blue Ducks at The Farm Byron Bay. Serving organic and sustainably farmed produce, try the beef short rib and farm salad (meal for two at $105 approx). Details: thefarmbyronbay.com.au

    Things to do
    Try some beach-side yoga, meditation and massage with your partner. The 90-minute classes start from $18. (beachsideyogaandmassage.com.au)
    Take a tour of the 19th century lighthouse. With amazing views of the ocean, it’s a great spot for spotting humpback whales—though we spied a few rock wallabies foraging on the cliff

    Uluru

    If someone said to you why not spend nearly a lakh of rupees to fly four hours into the middle of a desert to inspect an old rock, you might look at the person in utter disbelief. That’s exactly the reaction I got from my wife when I suggested we forgo a trip to the Great Barrier Reef and go to Uluru instead. Getting to the sandstone monolith in the Northern Territory’s Red Centre desert isn’t easy—perhaps that’s part of the allure for the 4,00,000-plus tourists that visit every year. You are visiting a place that is world famous, yet seen by so few.

    Accommodation
    dinner_in_the_outbackThere is only one resort at Uluru and it offers different levels of accommodation. My cub scout days are over so although staying in a tent without electricity would have been easy on my wallet (at AUD $36 per night), I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Outback Pioneer hotel offers hostel-type accommodation, with communal ablutions and cooking facilities if you are happy sharing with others. The other ‘low cost’ option is the motel-style accommodation with rooms that can comfortably sleep up to four.

    Weather
    Uluru doesn’t get much rain but, just our luck, storm clouds moved in just after we touched down. This rain was an anomaly and for the remaining days the weather was typical of a desert climate— hot in the day, cooler at night.

    Food
    Vegetarian options are limited in Uluru. My wife was shocked when the mushroom and capsicum kebab cost `1,000. For carnivores, Uluru offers a plethora of eating options including kangaroo, crocodile and emu. The solo supermarket in the resort lets you buy provisions to cook for yourself in the resort’s communal kitchens, if needed.

    Experiencing the sunrise
    uluru_base_walk_2A problem with visiting Uluru is that all the good stuff happens early in the morning. My sister bullied us into leaving the resort at 4.30 am to catch the sun rise over the magnificent Uluru at 6 am. Since we had a car it was easy to drive to the park when it opened at 5 am. For people without a car, they can pay for the bus trip ($69) plus the entrance fee ($25 per person). The designated viewing platforms give you a breathtaking view of the rock. As the day broke, the sun’s rays began dancing across the red rock. It was also a cue for the flies to wake up and start bothering you.

    Kata Tjuta
    Fifty kilometres from Uluru is another rock formation, Kata Tjuta. Though less famous, it is no less impressive. Having experienced the flies from the day before, we decided to buy fly nets to slip over our hats. At $15 for two, they were possibly the best thing we purchased on our entire trip. Kata Tjuta has many trails but the easiest one takes about an hour as you walk between the rocks and across the red landscape.

    Silence and a buffet
    One must experience the Sounds of Silence dinner. At $195 per person, it offers four hours of unforgettable memories. It begins with sipping champagne while the sun sets over Kata Tjuta. For dinner, we sit at tables of 10—the perfect opportunity to meet people from around the world—and the extensive buffet presents a surprising variety of dishes (like crocodile salad and roasted kangaroo). My vegetarian wife was overjoyed as there was even rice available, something she had been missing since we left India.

    The morning walk
    Determined to make the most of our time in Uluru, my sister enforced another 5 am start to do the ‘Base Walk’ around Uluru. It is best to start your walk by 6 am, as it’s light but not too hot. While travel guides recommend you take three to four hours to complete the 12 km walk, my family marched through the red sand in under two hours. As the sun rises, the rock changes appearance with almost every step you take. By 8 am, the sun makes its scorching presence felt and you can understand why the guidebooks recommend finishing your hikes before 11 am.

    — Peter Claridge

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