Broad, bronzed and open-skied, Australia is built for family travel – a dazzlingly diverse country strewn with tropical reefs, surf beaches and snowy heights. The vast distances between A and B can test parental patience, but with some savvy planning you can focus on the delights of exploring with people much closer to ground level than you are.
Leaf through the new edition of Lonely Planet’s Travel With Children for practical tips, or check out our list of top 10 family-friendly destinations to get you started.
Australia’s biggest city would be just another sprawling metropolis without Sydney Harbour, the endlessly photogenic waterway around which city life circulates. Pile the kids onto a bumbling old Sydney ferry and check it out. Eyeball the Sydney Opera House from the water; chug under the Sydney Harbour Bridge; have a picnic on Cockatoo Island or Fort Denison; take a high-speed catamaran to Manly Beach for a surfing lesson; or disembark with your darlings at Darling Harbour for the Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Quarter Playground, Sydney Sea Life Aquarium and Wild Life Sydney Zoo.
Tasmania’s compact size, engaging history and accessible wilderness make for a brilliant family driving holiday: hop into a campervan for a ‘lap of the map’. Highlights include camping in Freycinet National Park, sea-kayaking around Coles Bay, beachcombing along Ocean Beach on the wild west coast, scaling the treetops at the Tahune Forest AirWalk and careening down Mt Wellington on a mountain bike. After dark, meet Tasmania’s ghosts (there are a few) on spooky tours of Hobart, Launceston and Port Arthur. On rainy days (there are also a few), Hobart’s excellent museums come to the rescue: history, Antarctica, maritime – take your pick.
Darwin and the Top End national parks
Darwin is really hot – a cooling swim is a daily ritual here. Dunk the kids in the Wave Lagoon at the Waterfront Precinct, or drive an hour down the highway to Litchfield National Park to splash around under waterfalls. Kakadu National Park has some remote swimming holes too, but the park’s primary lures are its astonishing indigenous rock-art galleries and its wildlife (implausible numbers of snapping crocs and flapping birds). Further south is Nitmiluk National Park, where you can swim and kayak around gorgeous Katherine Gorge (actually 13 gorges). Back in Darwin, the Mindil Beach Sunset Market and Deckchair Cinema provide after-dark diversions. And if you didn’t spy a croc in Kakadu, Crocosaurus Cove in downtown Darwin will get you far closer to one than seems sensible.
Far north Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef
Launch your Great Barrier Reef expedition from Cairns or Port Douglas, with a high-speed catamaran trip to an inner-reef atoll or an extended day trip to the pristine outer reef. Either way, snorkeling over this hyper-coloured world is mind-blowing. Scuba diving is an option for teens; a sedate sail in a glass-bottom boat will help the little ones to see into the sea. Back on dry land, far north Queensland resorts are geared for family function, with structured activities, pools, waterslides, wave skis, paddleboards and kids’ food options all standard issue.
Ditch your preconceptions: Canberra is much more than a political filing cabinet these days. The nation’s capital is a really good city for kids, with easy parking, myriad picnic spots and plenty of space to run around. Get earnest at the Australian War Memorial, then go silly at the National Arboretum Playground, with the ‘beauty of trees’ at the fore. For older kids, Questacon (aka the National Science and Technology Centre) is laced with stimulating exhibits. Equally invigorating are a few joyous somersaults atop the grassy dome of Parliament House, while more complex ideologies collide in the chambers below.
Gold Coast theme parks
With an ego the size of Queensland, the Gold Coast is its own biggest fan. But don’t the kids love it! There are five humongous theme parks here: Dreamworld, Sea World, Movie World, Wet’n’Wild and WhiteWater World. Get wet on a muggy Queensland afternoon, meet some nautical critters or lose your lunch on a rollercoaster. A VIP Pass will save a few dollars; an early start will save a long walk across the car park. The Gold Coast’s beach suburbs are kid-centric too, with surf lessons, jet-skiing, sea-kayaking, whale-watching… Alternatively, the much-hyped Australia Zoo is two hours north (and it actually lives up to the hype).
Victoria’s High Country
Given the otherwise sunstroked state of the nation, the classy skiing options in Victoria’s High Country may come as either a surprise or a relief. The big resorts here – Mt Buller, Falls Creek and Mt Hotham – are riddled with runs for everyone from short-arse snow bunnies to teen-scene snowboarders. It can be a pricey exercise getting here from Melbourne, hiring gear, staying in mountaintop lodges… but the payoff is a unique Australian family experience. Come back in summer for mountain biking, camping, bushwalking and assessing the bakeries in fetching high-country towns such as Beechworth, Mansfield and Bright.
A short hop south of Adelaide, roll onto a car ferry and bob across Backstairs Passage to Kangaroo Island (KI), South Australia’s most underrated weekender. Big-ticket enticements for kids here include the stinky, grumpy residents at Seal Bay Conservation Park and the appropriately named Remarkable Rocks in Flinders Chase National Park. In between you’ll find sand dunes (sandboarding!), surf beaches, pelican-feeding sessions, honey farms, fishing jetties, caves and wildlife parks – plenty of kiddie distractions until it’s time for some fish and chips (and a KI wine or two) at the pub in Kingscote.
Is Brisbane Australia’s most kid-friendly city? The Brisbane River is a big plus: ride a ferry around central Brisbane, or chug out to the endearing Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to hug one of the inmates. Back in the city, the riverside South Bank Parklands offer lawns, BBQs, playgrounds and the slow-spinning Wheel of Brisbane. The man-made, lifeguard-patrolled Streets Beach is here too, with shallow water for small swimmers. Further along the riverbank is the amazing treehouse playground at New Farm Park. Too humid for the park? The Queensland Museum & Sciencentre, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art all have dedicated kids’ activity rooms, interactive experiences and school holiday programs.
Southwest Western Australia
Like Tasmania, southwest Western Australia is a bite-sized zone that removes the adults-only appeal of lost, empty highways from the travel equation. Don’t miss the astounding Valley of the Giants near Denmark (no, not in Scandinavia) – a 600m-long treetop walk through enormous tingle trees. Other natural enticements for the kids include surfing at Ocean Beach near Walpole, hiking to lookouts in Walpole-Nornalup National Park, climbing the 68m Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree in Warren National Park, beachcombing along Great Ocean Drive near Esperance, and going underground at CaveWorks & Lake Cave near Margaret River and Ngilgi Cave near Yallingup. For mum and dad, offerings from the southwest wine scene will help you reconstitute once the kids are in bed.
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