(CNN): Travelers have been waiting more than two years to get Down Under and now, at last, Australia is open to the world again.
With a coastline that unfurls for almost 40,000 kilometers around six states and two territories, there is nowhere on Earth like Australia, with its vast and timeless land, potent as a dream, thriving with life along ancient fault lines.
Real connection to the country through exploration, learning, romance and rejuvenation will take time but it’s worth every second. So, if you’re looking for awe and adventure that can take weeks to experience, and lifetimes to forget, this is your destination.
To help plan your journey, we’ve compiled a list of some of the country’s most incredible experiences.
The Larapinta Trail, Northern Territory
Australia’s “Red Centre” trail over wild topography is not for the faint hearted. It winds for 223 kilometers through the Yeperenye (caterpillar) Dreaming country of the Western Arrernte people, along the spine of the Chewings and Heavitree ranges through the Tjoritja/Western MacDonnell Ranges National Park.
Six days of splendid isolation in the desert may not come with power or plumbing but Great Walks of Australia’s Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort offers a luxury network of architect-designed eco-campsites spread along the trail with hot showers, comfortable lounges and private sleeping quarters.
There are opportunities to learn about Indigenous culture and sample bush food prepared by a local Indigenous chef. Many highlights along the track revel in the awesome beauty of the Serpentine and Ormiston Gorges and the astonishing immensity of Standley Chasm, seen from the Summit of Mount Sonder.
The Kimberley, Western Australia
The immense and complex landscape of the world’s last great wilderness is waiting for discovery in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
El Questro Wilderness Park is a fever dream of deep and rugged gorges, plains, rivers, rock pools and thermal springs. Set among 700,000 acres of land on the red flanks of the Cockburn Ranges, El Questro Homestead is a pinprick of green, an improbable clifftop retreat for 20 guests perched on the edge of the Chamberlain River.
It’s 100 kilometers to the nearest town but there’s easy exploration by helicopter from the resort helipad: sunset cocktail flights for a bird’s-eye view of the wilderness; fishing for wild barramundi; cooling respite at Zebedee Springs, El Questro Gorge, Amalia Gorge, Champagne Springs and Emma Gorge.
Flinders Ranges, South Australia
Exclusivity rises to a new level when 260 square kilometers is shared by just 10 guests in a place that seems to define Australia, a few hours’ drive north of Adelaide, in the Flinders Ranges.
Once a sheep station, Arkaba is now a private conservancy, and the place to experience the Flinders Ranges’ Arkaba Walk. This is a blend of tourism with purpose amid red gums and mallee scrub on one of the most beautiful outback properties in the country.
An upscale journey leads through a head-scratching 500 million years of geological time, two centuries of European occupation and tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal history. It’s a chance for “hands on” immersion in a conservation program with a team of expert guides who breathe life into the bush encounter through a mix of guided walks and open top safari drives.
The Arkaba Homestead is a five-bedroom slice of restored pioneering history that’s been cleverly up-cycled to make this an experience more like staying with friends in the country than a typical luxury hotel.
The Whitsunday Islands, Queensland
The Whitsunday Islands offer some of the finest sailing in the world with wind, sea and scenery to rival the Caribbean.
Luxury resort Qualia hovers above a heavenly bay on Hamilton Island (one of the group’s 74 isles). It’s surrounded by the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef (the only living thing visible from space), offering astonishing views over the Coral Sea.
Walls of glass hold back man-made luxuries but guests talk about the quality of quietude that allows the emeralds and sapphires of the Whitsunday Islands to take full effect.
It’s not just the luxuriant drop-edge, private, plunge pool fronting palm trees and forested islands but the focus on things done well: food by chef John Kennedy, signature spa treatments and cocktails at sunset in the Long Pavilion.
There are deserted beaches and some of Australia’s oldest archaeological sites but hey, what’s the rush, anyway?
Daintree Rainforest, Queensland
Old age takes on a different appearance in tropical North Queensland.
The Silky Oaks Lodge is literally enfolded in the oldest living rainforest — the 180-million-year-old UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, which fans out over 1,200 square kilometers — overlooking the healing mineral rich waters of the Mossman River.
This is low-key, low-impact indulgence pulsating with living planetary history.
The dramatic seven-meter rosewood-paneled roof, above an open-sided central pavilion, forms part of the freshly revamped lodge, which reopened last December after a $20 million rebuild.
Guests are invited to consider a sunset sailing and snorkeling trip out on the reef aboard a luxury catamaran, or an afternoon Dreamtime Walk to Mossman Gorge, a 10-minute drive away. Morning yoga sessions and use of the lodge’s kayaks, mountain bikes and snorkeling gear are all part of the package.
Mount Mulligan, Queensland
Queensland is almost three times the size of France with five of Australia’s 13 World Heritage sites and just about everything is bigger here: crocodiles, hats, cattle stations, the sky, even the “big pineapple” which is as high as a five-story building.
Mt. Mulligan Lodge, located 100 kilometers inland from Cairns, is a quintessential Australian experience of laid-back lavishness in a rugged outback environment. It’s hunkered down at the base of Mt Mulligan, technically a sandstone monolith that stretches for more than 18km, 10 times the size of Uluru.
Guests can fly in by helicopter for a bird’s eye view of this dramatic shape-shifting landscape. Locally caught and foraged seasonal dishes are part of the reward after activities that range from 4WD safari expeditions to one of the country’s most productive historic goldmines and guided nature walks.
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
The third longest fringing reef in the world, World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is possibly one of the country’s best-kept natural secrets.
And Sal Salis brings African safari camp levels of sophistication to a spot where the outback meets the reef with 15 wilderness tents (and one honeymoon tent) hidden in the dunes of the coral coast.
The real attraction, the reef, is a few meters off shore. Beyond the reef is the best place in the world to swim (respectfully) with the world’s largest (but harmless) fish, the whale shark, a pretty constellation of spots running the length of its 10-meter body. Not to be upstaged, giant humpback whales, dugongs and manta rays are waiting for introductions here, too.
Sal Salis’s safari guides are on hand to assist in immersion and the chef ensures the very best of Australian cuisine teams with fine Western Australian wines. Lie in a hammock and watch whales curling along a blue horizon or swivel heads for more wildlife distraction — red kangaroos, echidnas and emus — behind the tents and in the dunes of Cape Range National Park.
Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania
Experience the smorgasbord of Tasmania’s east coast from Hobart to St Helens, where the road is a pantry: strawberries picked at Sorrell’s Fruit Farm, home-made scallop pies in Bicheno, crusty Leavenbank organic bread from St Helens.
Saffire Freycinet Lodge is a 2.5-hour drive north of Hobart on the Freycinet Peninsula. It comprises 20-luxury villas, a discreet distance from a monumental main lodge suspended like a sort-of giant manta-ray-shaped spaceship.
Out front is Great Oyster Bay — a white-sand beach scattered with red lichen-covered boulders — with views across aqua water to the cluster of pink granite hills, The Hazards, on the opposite side of Coles Bay.
The tide is a gourmand’s menu of scallops, mussels, oysters, crabs and seaweed.
Take a guided walk to learn about the history of the Palawa people (knowledge restored after decades of misconception that the last indigenous Tasmanians were wiped out in the 1800s) and sample the local bush tucker.
Don a full-body bee suit (with safety and guidance) to extract honeycombs from the Saffire hives or slip into a pair of waders to visit an oyster farm while experiencing the raw beauty of a freshly shucked oysters straight from the sea. This is how life on earth is meant to be.
Uluru, Northern Territory
Uluru is a rock of a spellbinding mystery, a 348-meter high monolith that’s taller than The Eiffel Tower, jutting out of the red earth in the middle of Australia.
The Tali Wiru (”beautiful dune” in Anangu) desert dining experience at Ayers Rock Resort is the perfect complement to any Uluru visit and begins with champagne and canapés for up to 20 diners.
Then there’s a white linen table with a chandelier of stars for two (or four, or six) atop an ochre-red dune with views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta — 600 million-year-old sandstone rock formations that sacred to Indigenous Australians,
There are dark skies at night in most remote Australian locations but you might as well kill two birds with one (very big) stone. The Milky Way is a just another star-spangled extravagance in this otherworldly place and one course won’t be enough.
The resort’s Longitude 131° is a luxurious five-star glamping experience, with more good views.
The True North, Western Australia
Voyagers can discover virtually unseen and untouched parts of Australia on The True North, an adventure cruise ship that’s small enough to glide into the coves and bays, where others cannot go. An all-Australian crew of 22, and six expedition tenders, provide seemingly unlimited adventure for the maximum 36 guests.
The Kimberley Wilderness Cruise offers a parade of waterfalls and islands for those who are able, more or less, ‘to do what they want, when they want it’ in some of Australia’s hardest to access regions.
Adventure boats are on call for daily activities that might include snorkeling, diving, fishing, hiking and exploration of natural or cultural history. The ship’s helicopter opens up a greater range of options from scenic flights and heli-picnics to overnight camping adventures.
Mount Borradaile, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
Nowhere in the world can claim a cultural legacy quite like Aboriginal Australia. The awe and inspiration of Australia’s indigenous cultures can be found everywhere across this wide land. Discover Aboriginal Experiences links into a wealth of experiences with over 40 operators offering travelers the privilege of walking on country with the nation’s First People.
The oldest living culture in the world — underpinned by the philosophy that if you look after the land, it will look after you — is in fact made up of many different communities with over 120 different languages still spoken today.
Twice the size of Switzerland, Arnhem Land is a remote and mysterious corner of the Northern Territory. The Yolngu people have inhabited the region for 60,000 years and continue to keep their traditions alive.
Arnhem Land is best accessed through nominated tour operators who have earned the trust of the Yolngu people to help preserve some of the oldest things found on earth.
In a remote corner, about an hour from Darwin, the Borradaile treasures are a potent reminder for the present-day Ulba Bunidj of people who lived in 48,000 BC, their artwork adorning sandstone ranges that rise from the wetlands as the site of burial caves.
Mount Borradaile is under the custody of Max Davidson, who runs tours from his eco lodge, Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris.
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