Alternative Australia



Don’t want to get caught by the tourist traps? Well, David Whitley has a few Aussie alternatives that are probably a better bet for what you’re seeking.


Rainbow Beach

Alternative to? Hervey Bay


Hervey Bay is seen as the main jumping off point for Fraser Island trips, and has turned into something of a backpacker party capital as a result. That’s great if you want to drink cheap lager in backpacker bars to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas, but Hervey Bay isn’t exactly blessed with bags of charm. The mistake, of course, is to believe that the only way of getting to Fraser Island is via Hervey Bay. It isn’t. In fact, it’s not even the quickest way. The ferry crossing from Rainbow Beach is much less time-consuming, and Rainbow Beach is arguably a much better jumping-off point for Fraser. To call it a town would be pushing things a little too far, but it’s a laid back little settlement surrounded by colourful sand dunes, and feels like a much nicer spot to kick back in.


Montague Island

Alternative to? Philip Island


Philip Island is one of Australia’s greatest tourist traps. A short drive from Melbourne, the whole world rocks up there every evening to watch the Penguin Parade. This is an incredible experience – the little penguins toddle in from a day at sea and waddle back to their nests. The problem is that the crowds totally depersonalise things, and you feel like you’re at a sporting event. Not a lot of people know that Philip Island isn’t the only place in Oz where you can watch the penguins coming in. Montague Island off the New South Wales coast is also home to the little penguins, and the viewing experience is much more intimate. This is partly because only small numbers of people can get across in the boat from Narooma, and partly because it’s just less accessible. If you really love penguins, you can volunteer to stay for a couple of days in the island’s lighthouse cottages, taking part in the penguin conservation programme.


Mission Beach or Darwin

Alternative to? Cairns


Cairns is almost always seen as the final destination when heading north to the Australian tropics, but as a city itself it has little going for it. That’s a statement that will be seen as sacrilege in some quarters, but Cairns is far better used as a base for exploring the surroundings than as a standalone destination. In truth, there’s not much there and the city just feels lacking in something. If you’re after a north Queensland base where you can still do all the adventure sports, go to the Great Barrier Reef and head into the rainforest, then Mission Beach is probably the best bet. It’s relaxed, has an enormous stretch of sand to stroll across and most of the adventure sports companies (especially the rafting and skydiving chaps) operate from there as well as Cairns. The Reef is within spitting distance too. More importantly, it feels like you’re a part of the local community it rather than in a giant tourist barn. Alternatively, if you’re really wanting to spend time in a tropical city, then Darwin in the Northern Territory is a much better choice than Cairns. It feels real rather than manufactured, has a bizarre mix of the Bohemian and the crocodile-wrestling Outback stereotype and has far more to keep your interest within the city itself. 


Ningaloo Reef

Alternative to? The Great Barrier Reef


If it wasn’t for the Great Barrier Reef overshadowing it, the Ningaloo Reef would be a household name across the world. Stretching along the Western Australian coast, it sees far fewer visitors than its East Coast rival – and that’s part of the attraction. You’ll not have to fight the crowds of tour boats for the best spots, and you can even go whale shark-spotting from Exmouth. The only problem is that it takes a lot more effort to get to the Ningaloo – Western Australia isn’t nearly as well served by flights and public transport.


Mt Augustus or King’s Canyon

Alternative to: Uluru


Uluru is always billed as the world’s biggest monolith or rock (despite the fact that no-one’s ever gone round the world measuring all the rocks properly). But it’s not true. In fact, it’s not even Australia’s biggest monolith. Mt Augustus in Western Australia is much bigger, if perhaps not quite as spectacular when hit by the light. Getting there is a serious effort, however – it’s in the middle of absolute nowhere, and there are none of the (outrageously overpriced) tourist facilities that surround Uluru. Uluru is still unquestionably worth visiting, though – rip-off though the Ayer’s Rock Resort may be. But it’s wise not to see it as the be all and end all. King’s Canyon is in many ways more spectacular and while the walk to see the best bits may have its arduous stretches, the savageness and variety of the landscape makes it the most underrated of the Red Centre’s big three (the third part is Kata-Tjuta).


Lennox Head or the Hinterland

Alternative to: Byron Bay


Byron Bay is painted as some kind of mythical alternative culture hang out. It may have been at one time, but it certainly isn’t now. Byron might not have a McDonalds, but in every other respect it’s a mainstream resort town. Walk down the main street and you’ll be bombarded by people from backpacker bars and tour operators handing out flyers – and that doesn’t make for much of a chilled out atmosphere. But a lot of the villages around Byron still have the vibe that the hordes are seeking. Lennox Head is essentially still a laid-back surf village, while the Byron Bay hinterland is gorgeous. Step away from the coast and you’re surrounded by rainforest and National Parks. This is where the real hippies live, and you’re unlikely to be attacked by people offering drinks promotions.