Down Under the radar

Skip the usual tourist spots in Australia and head to beaches, parks and outposts off the beaten track

Australia has long been a favourite destination for Singaporean travellers looking for great food, wine, shopping and a taste of Western culture.

Singaporeans will soon find it easier to travel Down Under with the implementation of multi-year visas, thanks to a landmark agreement in May to strengthen bilateral ties. Both sides have also agreed to allow youth to take up short-term work in each other's countries for up to 12 months.

For Singaporeans, this means more time and freedom to explore Oz.

But instead of the usual tourist hot spots such as Blue Mountains, Yarra Valley and the Great Barrier Reef and the popular cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, head to these under-the-radar beaches, parks and outposts.


Western Australia

ESPERANCE

After a nine-hour drive from Perth, past the wineries of Margaret River, along Australia's southern coast, travellers will find Esperance, a picturesque town on one of Australia's most pristine coast lines.

It is a popular holiday spot with surfers and people from Perth, though its distance from the city means few tourists venture here.

Its draw lies in its unspoilt white sand beaches, breathtaking coastal walks, snorkelling spots and a year- round temperate climate. Whale- watching season is from June to October and visitors can take boat tours to see southern right and humpback whales.

The area is also famous for Pink Lake, a 99ha salt lake 3km from Esperance that turns bright pink when the temperature is high enough and the lake water reaches a salinity greater than sea water, causing its algae to accumulate red pigment.

About a four-hour drive north of Esperance is the world-famous Wave Rock, a 100m-long and 15m-tall granite rock formation which looks like a giant wave about to crash on the surrounding bush.

Getting there: Esperance is a nine-hour drive from Perth, or more than a four-hour drive from Wave Rock. There are daily 11/2- hour flights between Perth and Esperance by Rex Airlines.

Where to stay: Esperance Island View Apartments (esperanceapartments.com.au; from A$219 or S$220 a night for a one-storey, one-bedroom ocean-view apartment).

NINGALOO REEF

Around 1,200km north of Perth, Ningaloo Reef is a snorkelling paradise. The Ningaloo Coast, a Unesco World Heritage area that covers more than 600,000ha, is where visitors can relax on soft-sand beaches and, in some places, swim straight onto reefs alive with colourful marine life such as green and hawksbill turtles and reef sharks. Dolphins and manta rays also frequent the reef.

Besides 260km of world-class coral reef, one of Ningaloo's biggest draws is the whale shark, the world's largest fish. From April to July, visitors who book day-long tours (www.visitningaloo.com.au/things-to-see-do/whale-sharks) can swim with these creatures, which migrate by the hundreds to Ningaloo during the coral spawn.

Ningaloo is also on the migratory path for 30,000 humpback whales. Previously, people were allowed to watch the whales only from a distance, but for the first time, they will be allowed to swim alongside the mammals in a trial programme that runs from August to October.

Getting there: The entrance to Ningaloo Reef is in Coral Bay, about an hour's drive from the town Exmouth. Most people fly into Exmouth via daily 21/2-hour Qantas Link flights from Perth. You can also drive up from Perth, which takes around 12 hours to Coral Bay, and 13 to Exmouth.

Where to stay: The new four-star Novotel Ningaloo Resort (novotelningaloo.com.au; from A$256 a night) is the only resort on Sunrise Beach, just outside Exmouth. Visitors looking for a unique luxury experience can head to Sal Salis (www.salsalis.com.au), a remote beach-side safari camp in the dunes of Western Australia's Cape Range National Park. It has 16 eco-luxe wilderness tents on the shores of Ningaloo Reef.

KARIJINI NATIONAL PARK

Hidden in the heart of the Pilbara region - as one continues up the western coast - is some of the world's oldest natural landscapes, dating back two billion years.

To see it at its best, head to the 627,422ha Karijini National Park for its deep canyons, rocky gorges, mighty waterfalls and cool, clear rock pools perfect for a refreshing swim. Look out for wildlife such as red kangaroos, euros (the common wallaroo), echidnas and legless lizards. Temperatures can go up to 40 deg C so it is best to visit during late autumn to early spring.

Getting there: Qantas operates daily 1 hour and 45 minute flights from Perth to the town of Paraburdoo, 100km from Karijini National Park. The drive from Perth takes about 16 hours.

Where to stay: In the park's Joffre Gorge is the award-winning Karijini Eco Retreat (www.karijiniecoretreat.com.au; from A$40 a night for an unpowered campsite to A$315 a night for the deluxe eco tent). The eco-friendly retreat and campground offers a range of accommodation, from individual and group campsites, dorm-style cabins and tents to 40 upmarket glamping tents with ensuite bathrooms.


South Australia


The landscape of Coober Pedy in South Australia, with its red silt and sandstone, resembles the dry, red wasteland of Mars. PHOTO: TOURISM AUSTRALIA

Marked by hill after hill of red silt and sandstone, the landscape resembles the dry wasteland of Mars.

In summer, temperatures can soar to 45 deg C in the shade. Rainfall is only 17.5cm a year.

It is an unforgiving landscape, but what attracts tourists to Coober Pedy, a town 846km north of Adelaide and 685km south of Alice Springs, is what lies beneath.

Coober Pedy is the opal capital of the world and has been supplying most of the world's gem-quality opals since they were first found there in 1915.

Tourists venture there to tour the opal mines and see if they can find an opal of their own, as well as to experience the town's unique subterranean lifestyle.

Most of its 3,500 residents live underground in dugout homes carved into the hills. Homes, hotels, churches and restaurants have been tunnelled into the temperate earth, which shields residents from the blazing heat in the day and the bitter desert cold at night.

An immigrant town with more than 45 nationalities, Coober Pedy has good eateries such as Tom & Mary's Greek Taverna or Umbertos, The Desert Cave Hotel's rooftop restaurant, as well as Barbecue Inn Underground restaurant.

After your meal, tour a mine, such as Tom's Working Opal Mine (www.tomsworkingopalmine.com) to see how miners excavate the opal. You can also visit the underground galleries and places of worship such as the Serbian Orthodox church.

Getting there: By car, Coober Pedy is roughly nine hours' drive from Adelaide and seven hours from Alice Springs. Regional Express Airlines (www.rex.com.au) operates a plane service to and from Adelaide five days a week, with a flight time of two hours.

You can also stop by Coober Pedy while taking The Ghan (www.greatsouthernrail.com.au), a luxury sleeper train which takes travellers deep into the outback on a three-night, four-day 2,979km journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

Where to stay: At the Desert Cave Hotel (www.desertcave.com.au; rooms start at A$174 or S$175), guests can experience living in the cool, quiet and dark underground in one of the hotel's 19 underground suites. Aboveground rooms are also available, all furnished to reflect the light and colour of the outback landscape.


Tasmania


The Russell Falls are on the eastern boundary of Mount Field National Park. PHOTO: TOURISM TASMANIA/STUART CROSSETT

A few years ago, Tasmania would have been listed as an off-beat destination. But these days, the shark tooth-shaped island at the southern tip of Australia is a foodie haven luring visitors with its fine produce, such as fresh fruit, cheese and award-winning wines.

It is also home to flourishing rivers of trout and some of the best oysters in the world, plucked right out of the bay and served in a shack on shore.

The same fertile soil supports Tasmania's amazing biodiversity, with many plant and animals species found nowhere else in the world.

For all of its pastoral charm, 45 per cent of Tasmania lie in reserves, national parks and Unesco World Heritage sites. Freycinet National Park is the best known - its twin jewels, Bay of Fires and Wineglass Bay, are picturesque highlights.

Fewer tourists turn their attention to the 100-year-old Mount Field National Park - about an hour's drive north of Hobart - which is a shame as few other parks in Australia offer a similar range of scenic features, wildlife and diversity of flora.

The 159 sq km park has two visitor sections. The first is near the park entrance, where there are picnic facilities and short, stunning walks past enormous, Jurassic era-looking ferns and through a magnificent eucalyptus forest full of swamp gum trees, the tallest flowering plant on earth. The trees here - at 90 to 100m - are some of the world's tallest.

Another popular walk is to the two-tiered Russell Falls, where curtains of water cascade from horizontal rock shelves 30 to 60m high.

Following the rainforest along Lake Dobson Road, visitors with four-wheel-drive vehicles can ascend into the park's alpine region for longer walks up the mountain and around the lake, where lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of a platypus in the early mornings or late evenings.

In winter, Tasmanians come here to ski, but autumn is when the park is at its most resplendent, lit up by the gold-, amber- and rust-coloured leaves of the deciduous beech tree, found only in Tasmania. Catch its autumn display between late April and early May.

Getting there: Mount Field National Park is just over an hour's drive from Hobart, Tasmania's capital.

Where to stay: Curringa Farm (curringafarm.com.au; rooms start from A$215 or S$216 a night for two people, A$45 an extra person) is a 303ha working sheep farm an hour's drive from Hobart.

The farm has four beautiful cottages which offer a range of accommodation to suit couples, families and groups. There are picturesque views of the surrounding lake, forests and fields.


New South Wales


Rock pools on Lord Howe Island, which was formed by volcanic eruptions more than six million years ago. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Jutting like a roughly hewn emerald out of the sapphire Tasman Sea 700km north-east of Sydney, Lord Howe Island is a quiet paradise that feels a million miles from city life.

Only 350 people live on the 14.55 sq km island. Formed by volcanic eruptions more than six million years ago, the crescent-shaped isle rises to mountain headlands in the north and south, with a sheltered coral lagoon and sandy beaches in between.

Unless you have a private boat, the only way to get there is by a two-hour flight from Sydney or Brisbane. To maintain the island's laid-back and peaceful lifestyle, there is a limit of no more than 400 visitors at a time. They go there to snorkel, dive, fish, canoe, birdwatch and climb the mountain.

The island is encircled by the southern-most coral reef in the Pacific and has a unique combination of tropical, subtropical and temperate marine life, with more than 90 types of coral and 500 species of fish.

Much of the island is virgin forest, and about 47 per cent of its plants and 60 per cent of its insects are found nowhere else in the world.

A trek through the forests and up Mount Gower, the island's tallest mountain at 875m, with spectacular views of the island and its lagoon, is said to be one of Australia's best day hikes.

Lord Howe is part of a group of 28 islands, islets and rocks. About 23km south-east of the island lies Ball's Pyramid, a 551m-tall jagged stone shard that is the world's largest monolithic sea rock. Its waters are some of Australia's most spectacular diving sites.

Getting there: Qantas operates daily flights from Sydney and weekly flights from Brisbane. The flights take just under two hours.

Where to stay: The family which owns Pinetrees Lodge (www.pinetrees.com.au; rooms start at A$205 or S$206 a person, twin-share) has lived on Lord Howe since 1848. Now run by its sixth generation, the traditional lodges with beach-house decor are the island's most popular accommodation.

Luxury accommodation can be found at Capella Lodge (lordhowe.com; rooms start at A$750 a person, twin-share), which has suites with contemporary decor and picturesque views of mountains and lagoon.


Victoria


Mount Hotham has been a skiing destination for the past 100 years. PHOTO: TOURISM AUSTRALIA

Snow-capped mountains and ski fields may not immediately come to mind when picturing things to do and see in Australia. But Mount Hotham in the Victorian Alps, at an elevation of 1,861m, boasts 320ha of ski terrain, 13 ski lifts and 35km of cross-country skiing tracks.

About a 41/2-hour drive from Melbourne, Mount Hotham has been a skiing destination for local tourists for the past 100 years. An average of 3m of snow falls annually on the mountain, enhanced by snow-making facilities.

The longest downhill run is 2.5km, and ski slopes cater to beginner, intermediate and advanced skiers. There are also tobogganing, dog sled tours, snow mobile rides, day spas, and bars and restaurants.

Most of the accommodation and activities are centred on Hotham Village which, at 1,750m up the mountainside, is Australia's highest alpine village and regularly experiences negative temperatures during the winter season from June to September.

Getting there: Hotham is about a 41/2-hour drive from Melbourne, via Hume Highway and the Great Alpine Road. Vehicles on the Great Alpine Road must carry diamond pattern tyre chains at all times during the declared snow season and drivers must use them when and where directed.

Where to stay: From luxury chalets to motels and full-service apartments, there are more than 7,000 beds between Hotham and the alpine village of Dinner Plain, which is 10km away.

The Blowhard Hotham Heights Chalet (www.hothamholidays.com.au) offers four-bedroom, four- bathroom multi-storey free-standing chalets with beds for 12 people. The luxury ski-in, ski-out chalets each have a full kitchen, living room, one private, undercover parking space, and are a two- minute walk from the village centre. The property includes a spa, cinema, games room and sauna.

Chalets start from A$3,812 or S$3,829 for two nights in the low season in early June and end- September. They can go up to A$5,444 for two nights in the peak season of mid-July to mid-August, with better deals for longer stays.


Northern Territory

ARNHEM LAND


Some of Australia’s best Aboriginal rock art is found at Mount Borradaile. PHOTO: TOURISM AUSTRALIA

There is perhaps nowhere more inhospitable in Australia than its Northern Territory.

With crocodile- infested rivers and shark-patrolled shores to the north, and thousands of kilometres of bone-dry desert to the south, it is the least populated state in the country.

Yet tourism to its national parks is the main industry here and many visitors fly to Darwin, the state's capital, to visit Kakadu National Park.

On the eastern border of Kakadu - stretching north to the Arafura Sea and east to the Gulf of Carpentaria - the adventurous will find Arnhem Land, a vast unspoiled wilderness rich in Aboriginal culture and the birthplace of the didgeridoo.

The protected area is owned by the Yolngu Aboriginal people who have occupied the region for at least 60,000 years, and visitors require a permit and instructions from the Northern Land Council (www.nlc.org.au).

For safety and ease of access, it is recommended that visitors join an organised tour with operators such as Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris (arnhemland-safaris.com/index.php/about) and Lords Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris (www.lords-safaris.com), which have permission to enter the region.

Arnhem Land boasts beautiful and diverse scenery such as fertile rainforests, savannah woodlands, rugged coastlines and beautiful beaches. Many anglers join a deep-sea fishing charter or cruise into a tidal estuary in search of barramundi.

A conservation area, Arnhem Land and its surrounding waters are an important habitat for dugongs, nesting turtles and migratory birds, but as many deadly saltwater crocodiles are found here, it is best to explore the vast wilderness with a guide.

In addition to the wildlife encounters, Arnhem Land offers an authentic indigenous experience. The Yolngu are still strongly connected to the land and travellers will find some of Australia's best rock art in places such as Mount Borradaile and Injalak Hill.

Aboriginal guides can take visitors to see the art, share stories of Aboriginal mythology, and through the bush to see how the people live off the land.

The eastern side of Arnhem Land is known for its long stretches of white sand beaches and crystal- clear, azure waters. Indigenous communities such as Yirrkala, outside the coastal town of Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, lead tours of the area and its scuba and snorkelling sites.

Most people visit during the dry season from April to September, to avoid the cyclones and unpredictable weather during the wet season when some parts of the land are inaccessible.

Getting there: Daily flights connect Nhulunbuy with Cairns and Darwin. The region can also be accessed by four-wheel-drive along the Central Arnhem Road which connects to the Stuart Highway south of Katherine. Access from the south is via the Kakadu Highway.

Where to stay: Accommodation in Arnhem Land is limited, but there are some excellent wilderness lodges in the region, including Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris Eco Lodge (arnhemland-safaris.com/index.php/eco-lodge/lodge-facilities; from A$750 or S$753 a person for each 24-hour period, includes all meals, tours and activities, barramundi fishing and permits to enter Arnhem Land).

You can also sleep under the stars in one of Arnhem Land's camp spots, which should be discussed with the regional permit officer.

ULURU-KATA TJUTA NATIONAL PARK

The Northern Territory is also the home of Australia's most recognis- able natural landmark, Uluru, or Ayers Rock, a 348m-tall sandstone monolith in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Fewer people pay attention to Kata Tjuta, the park's other highlight.

Kata Tjuta is a formation of more than 30 red, weathered rock domes which rise out of the desert 40km west of Uluru.

The name means "many heads" and the rocks are sacred to the local Aboriginal Anangu people who have inhabited the area for over 22,000 years.

The rocks - also known as The Olgas after their tallest peak, Mount Olga which, at 546m tall, is 198m taller than Uluru - are an important part of Aboriginal spiritual life. They are where many ceremonies are performed, increasingly so as Uluru is inundated by a growing tourist population.

This is why of the 12 walking trails in and around the rocks, only two remain open to visitors out of respect for their spiritual significance.

The 2.6km Walpa Gorge Walk - the shorter and easier of the two - is a rocky path that passes rare native wildlife and leads to a grove of evergreen shrubs called spearwood.

Visitors who take the moderately difficult, 7.4km Valley of the Winds Walk will wander away from the crowd, through the dunes, between the domes and towards stunning views of the landscape, which is surprisingly lush with green bush and home to more than 20 animal species.

Like Uluru, the steep monoliths are most impressive at sunrise and sunset when they are cast in a warm ochre glow.

Getting there: Virgin Australia and Jetstar operate daily, two-hour 40-minute flights from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport. Jetstar also offers five weekly flights to Ayers Rock via Melbourne. Alice Springs is a 41/2-hour drive away.

Where to stay: The Desert Gardens Hotel (www.ayersrockresort.com.au/accommodation/desert-gardens-hotel; rooms start from A$385 a night, minimum two nights' stay) has 281 rooms, some with views of Uluru, a pool, an art gallery and a restaurant.


Queensland


Paronella Park is a moss-covered Spanish castle in the middle of the jungle. PHOTO: PARONELLA PARK 2001

Visitors to Queensland often fly into Cairns and drive an hour north to Port Douglas, the gateway to two Unesco World Heritage areas, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.

But travellers looking for a different sort of adventure should head 120km south to Paronella Park (www.paronellapark.com.au), a moss- covered Spanish castle in the middle of the jungle.

Spaniard Jose Paronella arrived in Australia from Catalonia in 1913. Starting as a sugar cane cutter, he later made money by purchasing, improving and reselling sugar cane farms. With dreams of creating an entertainment park for the public, he purchased 13ha of virgin forest surrounding the Mena Creek Falls waterfall for £120 in 1929, and built pleasure gardens and a reception centre on the land by hand.

Using stone, reinforced concrete and plaster, he spent the next six years building the Spanish castle- inspired complex, which opened to the public in 1935.

Inside, a large ballroom was a popular venue for parties and where movies were shown every Saturday night. Another room housed the Paronella Museum, an eclectic collection of coins, dolls, pistols and Queensland knick-knacks. Food and drinks were served in the refreshment rooms downstairs.

Outside, Paronella and his wife Margarita planted more than 7,000 trees and flowers to fill the Tea Gardens, line the swimming pool, tennis courts, children's playground, avenues and paths around the property, and built bridges over the creeks and waterfalls.

Though the park fell into disrepair for a few decades, it was bought and renovated by an Australian couple in 1993 and is now one of Queensland's most popular and eccentric tourist attractions.

Entry to the park (A$44 or S$44.20 an adult, A$23 a child aged five to 15) includes unlimited visits for up to two years, a free night's stay in the park's campground, and guided tours of the property. The night tours, when the historic buildings are eerily lit against the jungle, are particularly popular.

On the way to the park, drop by the 350m Mamu Tropical Skywalk (mamutropicalskywalk.com.au), an elevated walkway through the rainforest canopy with views of the surrounding hills; the scenic Josephine Falls; and the quirkily named, family-owned Murdering Point Winery (www.murderingpointwinery.com.au), which specialises in producing Australian bush fruit and tropical fruit wines and port.

Getting there: Fly to Cairns, then drive 120km south, heading to Mena Creek on the "Old" Bruce Highway after Innisfail. Day trips by coach from Cairns are also available (www.northernexperience.com.au).

Where to stay: Visitors can sleep at the Paronella Caravan and Camping grounds or rent an on-site cabin from the park. Paronella Park has six basic two-person cabins available at A$90 a night, each with a queen- sized bed or two single beds with linens, towels, bar fridge, kettle, a television and air-conditioning.

Travellers can also find comfortable, air-conditioned rooms at Mena Creek Hotel (www.menacreekhotel.com.au; from A$70 a double room a night to A$105 a night for a family room for five) located on farmland 200m from the park. The hotel has a traditional Queenslander-style country pub and beer garden.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Down Under the radar'. Print Edition | Subscribe