Australia is an incredibly vast and diverse country – you could spend years travelling and not see it all. But at least you could start scratching the surface in 2011.
1. Pick an island, any island.
Eschew your typical Aussie destinations and head for some less-visited islands. On the cusp of a tourism boom, Kangaroo Island, just south of Adelaide, is a pristine green-carpeted 150km-long paradise. Find your own spot on a beach, sample delicious local produce or just crash at the pricey but high-end Southern Ocean Lodge (the views are amazing). BYO or hire wheels – it’s largeish and a car makes life easier.
King Island, to the north of Tasmania, has a population of roughly 1650 and is a mere 64km by 27km. A tiny pinprick on the map! It is, however, home to King Island Dairy – free tastings! There’s not much to do except eat, sleep, go fishing, go diving (there are wrecks in the area) and take a break from real life.
2. Have an affair with MONA
The Museum of Old & New Art, aka MONA, is opening in Hobart on 22 January 2011. It’s set to be the place to visit in 2011. The private collection’s claims to fame are its size (largest in the southern hemisphere) and value ($100 million worth of quality art). The opening festivities are preceded by the MOFO – the MONA Festival of Music and Art. Artists gracing the festival include Philip Glass, Amanda Palmer, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and acts from Australia and places as far away as Iceland.
Not to be outdone, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra will no doubt be heavily marketing their newly opened (in late 2010) Indigenous wing.
3. Restaurants as destinations
Even the Global Financial Crisis didn’t even make a dent in the openings of new restaurants across Australia. 2011 will be the year it all comes to a head – food snobbery will be at an all-time high and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Jump in your car, turn on the GPS and head to one of many superb country restaurants. Stalwarts include the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, and Stefano’s in Mildura. Young upstarts are also rocking it with excellent food and creative presentation. Visit Loam in Drysdale and hit the town Orange in NSW for a clutch of restaurants including Lolli Redini and Tonic. Better start drawing straws to determine the designated driver…
4. Visit Newcastle
Controversially nominated in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travelas #9 in the list of top 10 cities to visit in 2011, Newcastle is definitely worth a visit. While it lacks the glam and glitz of its bigger neighbour Sydney, there’s plenty of lo-fi charm in Newcastle. Make friends with locals and they’ll unlock the local secrets – favourite watering holes, local gigs, secret spots on the beach, cool coffee shops etc. Or head to one of the many beaches for a swim, tan or surf (minus Sydney crowds). Stockton Beach, with its fine sand, stretches as far as the eye can see. Or jump into the convict-carved Bogey Hole ocean baths.
5. Dive and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
The only other Aussie destination to make Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel, the Great Barrier Reef was number seven in the top 10 regions to visit in 2011. Its inclusion isn’t surprising considering that the reef is the world's largest, and the only living organism viewable from outer space. Contrary to popular opinion, most of the damage to the reef is actually being inflicted by climate change (global warming causes coral bleaching), and pollution from rivers (caused by run-off during floods). Tourism actually has a much smaller ecological footprint as the main launching points to visit the region only account for 7% of the actual reef. Just remember to pick an environmentally responsible tour operator to minimise any feelings of guilt you might have.
6. Go on a multi-day hike
Pack your backpacks, lace your Gore-Tex boots. Australia's iconic trek, the Overland Track in Tasmania, is a six-day, five-night epic that takes you through 65km from Cradle Valley in the north to Lake St Clair in the south. Along the way, you’ll pass through Eucalypt forests and buttongrass valleys. It’s well worth the sweat and pain that comes with a long hike. For another great Australian hike try the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory, a 12-stage, 233.5km track with varying degrees of difficulty (each stage is accessible via 4WD so you don’t have to do it from start to finish).
7. Go on an outback road trip
Head out West, hire a 4WD and drive north along the unpaved Gibb River Road. This 660km drive in Western Australia takes you from Derby to Kununurra and it’s one of the great outback highways. The terrain is at times inhospitable and impassable during the rainy season but expect highways with endless vistas of red dirty, blue open skies and rugged terrain. Make pit stops along the way – there are stunning gorges, picturesque riverbeds, pounding waterfalls – perfect to cool off in. Book accommodation in advance, especially during the peak months of June to August. The drive isn’t to be taken lightly but with advance planning, you’ll have a ball of a time. Did someone say, 'Road TRIP!?'
Volunteering: it’s a great way to meet fellow travellers and feel good at the same time. Conservation Volunteers Australia runs over 2000 projects around Australia each year. These range from tree planting to wildlife surveys and walking-track conservation. The Willing Workers on Organic Farms is a chance for you to trade labour on an organic or biodynamic farm in return for bed and board. Lastly, Earthwatch has animal conservation projects all around Australia. These last anywhere from a day to a weekend to ten days. Families are welcome too.
9. Bright lights, big city
Sydney or Melbourne. Is there really the need to pick one? Just visit both and stay a couple of days. Each city has its own unique flavour. Melbourne is arty, cultured and slightly snobbish. Sydney is bold, brash, beautiful, slightly stuck-up, and filled with in-your-face world-class sights. Think the Opera (Oprah) House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and fabulous beaches perfect for surfing and tanning. But the great leveller between the two cities has to be food. Sydney has Tetsuya’s and Quay. Melbourne has Vue de Monde and Cutler & Co. Both cities are home to Rockpool. So there.
10. Do a sporting tour
Pick a major sporting event to attend and make a holiday of it. Here’s a list of just some sporting events across 2011:
Australian Open: Grand Slam tennis in Melbourne (17–30 January). The preceding Kooyong Classic is a good chance to catch superstars on the cheap (12-15 January).
Santos Tour Down Under: Catch Lance Armstrong in his last international race in South Australia (16–23 January).
Surfest: One of the premier surfing competitions. Held at Merewether Beach in Newcastle, NSW (7–19 March).
Grand Prix: Fast cars tear up the tracks in Melbourne. Can Webber do Australia proud? (24–27 March).
International Rugby Sevens: 16 countries and 44 matches across two days in Adelaide (2–3 April).
Melbourne Cup: See and be seen at the horse race that stops the nation. Ok, it stops one state at least (1 November).
Shawn Low is Lonely Planet's Asia-Pacific travel editor