Off the Beaten Path in Australia and New Zealand

by Jim Byers

The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, you know about. Maybe you know something about bungee jumps and Lord of the Ringsmovie sets, too. But there are some lesser-known attractions in Australia and New Zealand that are equally worth seeing.

I’ve been lucky to visit Australia and New Zealand several times, enjoying both well-known and out-of-the-way spots most folks have never heard of. They’re remarkably diverse countries with a huge array of things to see and do. Here’s a look at some of them.

AUSTRALIA

Lord Howe Island

This might be the most unusual place I’ve been in my travels. It’s a tiny slice of land (14 km squared) that’s perched roughly 600 km off the east coast of Australia. There are two high points of land, one of them a massive tower of basalt rock called Mt. Gower that rises almost 900 meters up from the ocean. Capella Lodge is the high-end accommodation on the island, an uber-luxurious place with spectacular views of the ocean and Mt. Gower. There are casual beach houses and apartments you can rent. The island has several beautiful beaches with fabulous diving, snorkelling and fishing. You also can hike to some amazing sea cliffs, where birds ride wild currents and float up and down in front of the cliffs. The island is scarcely-populated, and only 400 visitors are allowed at all times. There are regular (but weather-dependent) flights from Sydney and Brisbane.

Perfect for: Folks who REALLY want to get away from it all.

Kings Canyon

Australia’s cities are terrific, but to me it’s the Outback that defines that rugged Australian character and sets this continent apart. Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) gets most of the attention in the Australian Outback, and deservedly so. But I also love Kings Canyon. Roughly 300 km from Alice Springs, Kings Canyon (part of Watarrka National Park) is a marvellous place with fiery, orange-red rock formations stained by eons of sun, sand and blistering heat. The canyon walls are so smooth in parts that it looks like they were sliced by a giant and very angry Gordon Ramsay wielding a huge, and very sharp, meat cleaver. A small creek that’s surrounded by palm trees trickles through the canyon, providing a shady, cool oasis on a hot day in what’s pretty much the dead centre of the Australian continent. Kings Canyon Resort offers nice rooms, good food, a pub and a swimming pool for guests who really want to experience the Outback.

Perfect for: Hikers, stargazers and anyone who loves desert landscapes.

The Ningaloo Reef

This is Western Australia’s answer to the Great Barrier Reef. But it might be even better. For one, parts of the Ningaloo Reef are just a few meters from shore, whereas the Great Barrier Reef requires a boat ride of an hour or more to most sections. The 260-kilometer-long Ningaloo Reef also features humpback whales in season, as well as opportunities to swim with giant, peaceful whale sharks. There also are sea turtles, manta rays and a huge variety of tropical fish. On land, Cape Range National Park features amazing rock formations and is only a short drive away. Western Australia occupies roughly one-third of the entire continent and is approximately the size of Ontario and Quebec put together. With less than three million people, there’s plenty of elbow room.

Perfect for: Divers, snorkelers and anyone who wants to see a different side of Australia.

NEW ZEALAND

Bay of Islands

This semi-tropical area is a few hours drive north of Auckland on pretty country roads (there being maybe only a few kilometers of what we might call a North-American-style freeway in all of New Zealand). The waterfront town of Russell has tons of charm, with small cafes and galleries and French, British and Maori influences. This is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British and New Zealand’s native Maori. The Duke of Marlborough Pub dates to 1827, making it the oldest pub in the country. It’s a short drive to north New Zealand wine country and to the amazing Kauri Cliffs resort and golf course, which has tremendous holes overlooking a pretty bay.

Perfect for: History lovers and golfers, or anyone looking for a beautiful getaway from Auckland.

Marlborough Sounds

This is a magical series of waterways surrounded by deep green hills, with posh lodges, remarkable boating and tiny, uninhabited islands. Canadians who love the ferry rides from Vancouver to Victoria will feel right at home in this area. Lochmara Lodge is an intimate affair that’s reachable by ferry from the town of Picton, where you can catch a boat to the capital city of Wellington. Lochmara set me up on a wonderful kayak ride that went on for several hours and took us past several packs of fairy penguins and a number of sun-bathing sea lions. Not only is it great for nature lovers, but you’re in the heart of the Marlborough wine-growing region, famous for those crisp Sauvignon Blancs. You’re also close to the Queen Charlotte Track, a world-renowned hiking route.

Perfect for: Watersports lovers, hikers and anyone who likes a cold glass of New Zealand white wine.

Akaroa

Visitors who are unaware of this South Island town’s history might be surprised to find shops on the main street that say “Boulangerie” or a police station with a sign out that reads “Gendarmerie.” It turns out the French came here in 1840 but the British quickly followed and, as history tells us, became the dominant power in this part of the world. The French angle is interesting, but most folks who make it to the town come for the whale-watching and dolphin tours or other water activities. The town sits on a small bay on the Banks Peninsula, roughly an hour southeast of Christchurch. Impossibly green hills rise and fall along a series of twisting, turning bays, which look as if they were created by a slightly mad jigsaw puzzle creator. Don’t miss a visit to the Giant’s House, a crazy garden where dozens of wildly colourful ceramic statues dot the landscape. If you’re looking for a quiet place to stay, Beaufort House is a gorgeous B&B on a hill that’s run by a lovely couple.

Perfect for: Francophones, lovers of marine life and day-trippers from Christchurch.