Today, January 26, is Australia Day, the official national day of Australia which commemorates the 1788 anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships in what is now the state of New South Wales.
While my personal travel map is marked at 36 countries and counting, there is perhaps no country I have visited that I am more passionate about than Australia.
I love Australia.
In 2010, I decided to delay graduating from college for a semester to study journalism as an exchange student at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. At the time I was hesitant to make such a move as I was afraid graduating late would somehow leave a black mark on my future career. It didn’t, and to this day I credit spending a semester in Melbourne as the best decision I’ve ever made.
Australia opened my eyes to the world of international travel, living abroad and independence on the open road. As an exchange student I moved down under completely alone. I arrived without housing or a single friend, and I had to break completely out of my comfort zone to find somewhere to live other than the youth hostel I first stayed at and make friends.
Australia was also my first foray into solo travel. While I took many trips with friends during the semester, after classes ended none of my friends were able to travel with me so I embarked on a three week trek from Melbourne, in Australia’s Southeast, up the coast to Cairnes, home of the Great Barrier Reef.
This solo trip was, honestly, mostly a miserable experience during which the sadness of my lonely eyes and worries of my anxious heart blocked out most of the stunning colors of the Queensland beaches.
I didn’t know it then, but this first solo trip was breaking me in for many future travels. I no longer have inhibitions about travelling alone, and during my year in Europe I traveled to 25 countries, mostly alone, without ever actually feeling alone.
And so, in honor of Australia Day, and my love for Australia, here’s a look back at my five favorite travel moments from my time down under:
Five Best Things to See in Australia
5. Captain Matty’s Barefoot Tour in Cairns
I spent two days in Cairns, in the far north of Queensland. One day was dedicated to scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, but I was at a lost as for what to do on the second day until I found out about Captain Matty’s Barefoot Tour.
Captain Matty, a self-proclaimed hippy, takes backpackers on a non-rushed tour of the rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands surrounding Cairns. On his tour I saw an ancient fig tree, five waterfalls, an authentic Queensland pub and a tree kangaroo. While swimming in Josephine falls, home to a natural water slide, Captain Matty helped me come to an important realization that has suited me in all my travels since: to travel alone does not mean to be alone. Solo travel is a great opportunity to make new friends on the road.
4. Kangaroo Island
Australia’s third-largest island, Kangaroo Island, is home to less than 5,000 people, making it an oasis for many of Australia’s magnificent and unique species. The island is a unique place to get upclose to wallabys, kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras and more in the wild. Snorkel the crystal waters of Emu Bay, Stokes Bay and Bind Beach for sea life.
Rent a campervan and relax on one of the many deserted beaches for nocturnal wildlife viewing. The most enchanting moment on this island for me was when I spotted a young joey breastfeeding in the wild near our camp site.
Steve Irwin has long been a hero of mine with his charisma and passion for the natural world. On summer camping trips during my childhood, my friend Laura and I used to film Crocodile Hunter “mockumentaries” on my parent’s old video camera.
Prior to his unfortunate death, Steve Irwin owned and operated the Australia Zoo near Brisbane. The zoo is still open today and is a beautiful, clean place to learn about animals. Close-up and hands-on animal encounters are found around every corner in this cozy zoo. I got to feed elephants and kangaroos, pet a baby goat and even check off the most touristy item from my Australia bucket list and hold a koala.
2. The Spirit of Melbourne
Melbourne is Australia’s second-largest city, and with Sydney hogging the lime light most of the time, there is a bit of rivalry going on between these two beautiful cities. When I first found out I would be living in Melbourne I was a bit disappointed that I would not be spending my time in Australia in Sydney.
I quickly discovered how wrong I was. Melbourne is an amazing city brimming with culture, amazing cafes and some of the most enjoyable bars in the world.
Melbourne is famous for its many lane ways, or small side streets that often hide enclaves of artistic graffiti, funky and elegant coffee joints, like my personal favorite – the Hopetoun Tea Room. An “iced chocolate” is a must-order here.
Take in all the sights on the Circle City Tram tour, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens, Shrine of Remembrance and St. Paul’s cathedral.
At night head to dinner at one of the many fantastic Italian restaurants on Lygon Street. Follow up with a great night out with locals at Palms Lounge or the Carlton.
Out of all the places I visited in Australia, the red, sun-kissed sands of the Australian Outback touched my heart the most. Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a six hour car ride from the nearest city, Alice Springs. Along the drive, you’ll be immersed in the miles and miles of desert.
Uluru itself oozes with magic. New details of the rock formation emerge at every vantage point and the rock changes color with the rising and fading sun.