Go camel riding and swim with turtles: Amazing experiences closer to home than you think

From unique encounters with wildlife to relaxing farm stays and countless play options, your upcoming holiday just took a surprising turn

You don’t have to fly across the globe to saddle up for a camel ride. PHOTO: HUGH STEWART, DESTINATION NSW

In this Internet age, attention spans tend to be in short supply, regardless of whether you are young or young at heart. So when planning a holiday with the family, wanderlusters want a myriad of options that are easy to access and as unique as possible.

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And Sydney and New South Wales offer just that. Within the space of one- to three-hour drives from Sydney is a world of exciting attractions that will thrill the entire family and showcase the region in a renewed light.

Love longer drives and road trips? Take an epic drive along the Legendary Pacific Coast to sunny Byron Bay. Up for more adventure? You could even take a plane out to an exclusive island.

Water-lovers can snorkel with turtles in crystal clear waters, swim amongst seals, or feed and pet the sharks and rays in the shallow pool of an aquarium. There are farm stays that offer engaging animal interactions, camel or horseback rides along the beach at sunset, fruit-picking, chocolate-making, alpaca-feeding and well, just beautiful walks in the park.

The options are endless, and each as awe-inspiring as the next. The real conundrum is how to pack it all in one trip. Early planning, then, is of the essence. So, arrange a family pow-wow and consider which of the following you might want to experience on your upcoming family getaway. After all, half the fun is in the planning, isn’t it?

You'll want to add these bucket list-worthy locales to your upcoming travel itinerary:


Wildlife encounters like no other

If you were anywhere else in the world, you would probably find yourself travelling long distances just to experience the sheer variety of what’s available here in New South Wales

For starters, there is the World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island’s Marine Park, whose waters teem with more than 500 species of fish and over 80 coral species, many endemic to the island. The stars are the mesmerising turtles that can be spotted from the comforts of a three-metre-long glass-bottom boat or by jumping into the clear blue waters to snorkel among them.

The World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island is home to giant turtles, which you can get up close to on a snorkelling trip. PHOTO: WHENAREYOUGOINGHOME

Owned by sixth-generation islander Anthony Riddle, the Marine Adventures Turtle Tour is a fascinating journey complete with stories passed down from Anthony’s family and lots of information about the marine and wildlife on the island. 

We soaked up every minute of our time with our incredibly knowledgeable guide and spent a languid hour above and under the water just taking in the gorgeous turtles. On land, Anthony regaled us with tales and facts about the seabirds that add colour to this already splendorous place. 

Insider tip: Lord Howe Island is a private, exclusive option if you want to get close to nature while retreating from the crowds. Stay at Capella Lodge for a truly luxurious experience the whole family will love. Daily flights from Sydney will get you there in under two hours.

When it comes to the diverse wildlife in New South Wales, there’s more than just kangaroos, koalas and wombats. Did you know, for example, that Australia has the world’s largest population of wild camels according to the Guinness World Records? 

Imported to the country in the 1840s, camels were an important part of travelling through Australia’s vast outback. Today, you can still have a taste of that and explore the Stockton Sand Dunes on a camel ride, just a 30-minute drive from Port Stephens. 

Ride a camel on Birubi Beach in Port Stephens with the sea breeze in your face. PHOTO: ALESHA BRADFORD

Birubi Beach, in Port Stephens, boasts a landscape like no other. It is grand and austere all at once, with the beach leading up to the Pacific Ocean on one side and the majestic sand dunes on the other. A sunset ride through this incredible landscape on the backs of friendly camels is a truly memorable experience.

Admittedly, getting up on the camel’s back is a wobbly experience since these animals are tall. So here’s a tip we picked up during our trip – once you’ve settled into your camel’s saddle, lean back as it stands to keep your balance. After that, you’re all set for the ride of your life. At dusk, our guides lead the camels right to the ocean’s edge where we get a front row seat to the most stunning sunset. Even the children were quietly awestruck.

If your children prefer a more hands-on experience, head to one of the many alpaca farms throughout New South Wales where you can get up close with these peace-loving animals. Depending on the time of year, they could help shear them, feed them, and even have breakfast with them.

Get the kids to help feed hungry alpacas at Iris Lodge. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Adventurous water lovers can swim with the seals in Jervis Bay, a three-hour drive south of Sydney. Getting in the water with these puppy-eyed creatures (and a guide, of course) is a life-changing experience as they zip, swoosh and torpedo past with complete abandon.

Adventurous, water-loving kids will delight in a swim with the seals in Jervis Bay. PHOTO: JORDAN ROBINS

If snorkelling is more your thing, one of the best spots for amateurs and experts alike is at the Cabbage Bay Aquatic Reserve in Manly, where more than 160 species of fish can be spotted throughout its 20-hectare bay of rocky shores and beaches. 

There’s also the Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters in Port Stephens, two and a half hours north of Sydney, where you can snorkel with stingrays or reef and zebra sharks. Irukandji is a unique, interactive aquarium dedicated to ocean conservation. Should the kids prefer to stay dry, they can wade in the shallows and feed the friendly stingrays.

Get up close and feed the magnificent rays at Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Whale-sighting opportunities abound from May to November when these magnificent mammals make their annual migration. One distinctive way to spot them is to stand on the dramatic cliffs of Point Perpendicular Lighthouse in Jervis Bay and watch for their water spouts in the distance. 

The dramatic cliffs of Point Perpendicular offer a vantage point for a spectacular view of breaching whales. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Experience the bucolic charms of farm life

Ditch the distractions of city living and head to a farm for a taste of a slower kind of life. For many of us, farmstays can be a fabulous way for our city slicker children to experience living beyond our urban jungle. 

For a proper change of scenery, we headed to Redleaf Farm in the Southern Highlands, a leisurely two-hour drive south of Sydney, where the accommodations are as old-world as they come. We’re talking stylishly restored passenger cars or carriages, once upon a time drawn by horses from place to place.

For a different type of farmstay, why not settle into a stylishly-restored train carriage? PHOTO: REDLEAF CARRIAGES

Redleaf’s Carriage 343 is a unique guardsman built in 1890 and modified in 1930 to include a freight room, guards van and passenger seating. The queen bed and a bunk bed for two are surprisingly comfortable, while the rest of the carriage is solar-powered. Yes, that means no wifi, so we had plenty of opportunity to spend proper family time with the kids, swimming in the creek by the property’s swimming hole, riding horses, and hiking through the forest right by the 110-hectare farm.

Just 90 minutes from Sydney is Eden Farm Escape by Eden Equine. Five beautiful cabins are set on 90 acres of paddocks that back into the World Heritage Blue Mountains National Park. In other words, it is a haven of serenity where 12 resident horses are often available for riding lessons and easy rides around the property.

Kick back with the family in one of five beautiful cabins at Eden Farm Escape. PHOTO: EDEN FARM ESCAPE

Eden is also home to resident donkeys, alpacas, goats, sheep, cows and a pig that visitors can interact with. More than that, it is a wonderful oasis of calm and simple living, where you can ride bikes around the property, collect freshly laid chicken eggs in the morning, go on slow walks in the bush, and even enjoy a game of oversized chess.

There’s plenty of space for the kids to run around, as well as adorable animals to interact with at Eden Farm Escape. PHOTO: EDEN FARM ESCAPE

At Bilpin Country Lodge in the Blue Mountains, an easy 90-minute drive from Sydney or two and a half hours by train, you’ll have plenty of room for the whole gang. The lodge was built for large family stays with six bedrooms, each with an ensuite bathroom. 

There’s also plenty to do in the vicinity. Guests can pick their own apples from the nearby orchard, go horse riding, enjoy a round of golf, or even canoe down the Hawkesbury River.

Enjoy fruit-picking or horse-riding around Bilpin Country Lodge. PHOTO: BILPIN COUNTRY LODGE

Anyone who’s spent time at Mowbray Park Farm can attest to the wide variety of activities available onsite. From milking cows, and going on tractor rides, to learning how to crack a whip and throw a boomerang, the whole family will have a blast.

The sprawling Mowbray Park Farm is just 90 minutes away from Sydney, with a fully equipped kitchen in each family lodge. PHOTO: MOWBRAY PARK FARM

And at Morvern Valley Farmstay Cottages in the Southern Highlands, the experience can be as bucolic or exciting as you want it to be – perfect for multi-generational families travelling together. While Mum and Grandma head for a soak in the spa, the younger folk can feed the animals, catch butterflies, go on a hike or have a go at making your own fresh butter. 

Insider tip: If you’re on a road trip to Morvern Valley, be sure to stop at Gumnut Patisserie in Mittagong for their selection of delicious pies and sausage rolls.

Keeping the little (and not so little) ones busy

There’s never a dull moment in Sydney and New South Wales, whether it’s in the city or out in the country. From shallow rock pools where the tots can wade under supervision, to educational museums and high-octane theme parks, there’s something for kids of all ages.

Adrenaline seekers, take heart. Make your first stop Sydney’s Luna Park, where entry is free and you only pay for the rides. Located within screaming distance of the Sydney Harbour, this amusement park is packed with rides both thrilling and… well, mild. Love rollercoasters? Pick from four. The twists and turns of the Boomerang made our stomachs turn in all the right ways. We loved it so much, we climbed aboard it thrice! 

If you get a chance, ditch the children and get on the big kids-only Big Dipper, Australia’s tallest and fastest multi-launch coaster. It is both thrilling and therapeutic, offering us the opportunity to yell our lungs out when the ride spun around its 360-degree loops.

Thrilling rides and a carnival atmosphere await at the harbourside Luna Park. PHOTO: LUNA PARK

Naturally, there’s a Little Nipper that lets parents and kids ride together. There are just enough winds and bends to put those butterflies in your stomach and — be warned — for the young ones to ask to get on it again… and again.

Set in the heart of Sydney, Darling Quarter’s playground is widely regarded as the best in the country with free access. There is plenty of space for parents to join their kids in the fun or to sit back and chill on the sidelines. You might want to do the latter beneath dedicated shaded areas while they navigate and balance their way across the 18.7m-long balance ropes or the eight-metre-long slide. 

There’s a multi-dimensional swing set suspended from a giant ring, a regular jumbo swing, a sand digging pit, and a 21m flying fox amongst numerous other things that’ll keep the children engaged while you nod lovingly at them as they yell, “Mama, look!”

The evening light casts a stunning glow along Cremorne Point Walk where you get a perfect postcard view of the city skyline. PHOTO: WHENAREYOUGOINGHOME

Or stroll the 3-km foreshore circuit trail at Cremorne Point Walk in Sydney Harbour, where you’ll take in splendid views of Mosman Bay, Sydney Harbour, Sydney Opera House and the city skyline. That said, insiders know that the way to capture some of the best views of the iconic landmarks is to hop on a ferry to Taronga Zoo Sydney where you can catch the daily Free Flight Birds show. Bookings are not required but arrive early to get the best seats.

Home to over 4,000 animals, Taronga Zoo is the treat your kids will thank you for. PHOTO: TARONGA ZOO

Even if you’re not a history buff, the Australian Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour will prove an entertaining repository of stories and relics from the continent’s rich maritime mysteries. An afternoon spent here is eye-opening, from seasonal exhibitions that show how science helps us better understand the ocean, to its permanent collection of artefacts, and entertaining children’s programmes designed to stimulate learning. You can even go aboard a real submarine and learn about the secret world of submarine warfare.

Explore the HMB Endeavour, an Australian-built replica of the famous James Cook ship. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

While you’re in Darling Harbour, why not make a museum tour out of it? Sea Life Sydney Aquarium is always a hit with its large variety of local marine life, and the Powerhouse Musuem is perfect for budding scientists and designers.

Just outside of Sydney in the Western Sydney Parklands, is Bungarribee Park, a 45-minute drive out from the city. This 200-hectare patch of wide-open space lets children work off all that adrenaline. Its playground is filled with well-designed simple pleasures like a climbing tower, flying fox, swings and water play equipment.

Over in Penrith, don’t be surprised if you enjoy the Museum of Fire more than your children, especially when you can take command of a fire engine, design a home escape plan, and go on a treasure hunt. 

Delicious adventures await at The Factory in Gosford, where children can get sweet and sticky in a chocolate-making workshop. Or head to the likes of Bilpin Fruit Bowl, Canoelands Orchard, Ricardoe’s Tomatoes and Strawberry Farm, or Darkes Glenbernie Orchard to pick your own fruit and enjoy them straight off the trees. You could even stay at Cornwallis House, an hour's drive northwest of Sydney, and pick oranges from their trees to juice for breakfast.

Prepare for a sugar high at The Factory in Gosford. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

If you want a breather from all the activities the kids have been enjoying and just spend a good part of the day relaxing, Mona Vale Beach in the north of Sydney is a great spot to kick back and spend time building sandcastles with the kids. Splash about in the pretty rock pools or take a dip between the flags in the sea. If you’re lucky, you might get a close encounter with the dolphins that have been spotted in the area.

Splash about in the rock pools of Mona Vale Beach. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Over in Forster, North Coast, One Mile Beach is another popular spot with families where you can have barbeques (or "fire up the barbie" in local speak) at the surrounding park and cool off with a dip in the refreshing waters. Don't miss the giant sandhill at the northern end — beachgoers love climbing up and sliding down.

One Mile Beach is named for its distance from the Forster Post Office, not its actual length. PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW

Insider tip: If you’re having something to eat by the beach, watch out for the seagulls and don’t feed them because they can sometimes be aggressive.

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