Travel Spotlight

Journey to the Land Down Under: Just Back From Australia

This article was published August 18, 2023.

"We acknowledge the Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Owners of the Australian continent and recognize their custodianship of culture and country for over 60,000 years. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging."

If you are traveling to Australia, these days, you are sure to encounter some version of this message, probably more than once. Known as the “Acknowledgement of Country,” the refrain is an increasing presence in public life, as part of the growing movement surrounding the rights and reconciliations owed to Australia’s indigenous peoples—who are counted among the world’s oldest living civilizations. At the center of the movement is the “Voice” referendum, which could confirm a proposed amendment to Australia’s constitution that would recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia and establish a representative advisory to the government. The referendum was approved by Australia’s Senate in June, and the public vote is expected to take place later this fall. In the meantime, more Australian states are restoring original indigenous names to important sites (and even handing back parcels of land), incorporating First Nations traditions into such high-profile events as the FIFA Women's World Cup (the final match happens this Sunday, August 20, in Sydney) and partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to develop new experiences for travelers that promote cultural sustainability—like a groundbreaking exhibition at Australia’s most famous monument, Uluru, that was created in collaboration with the Anangu group, to share their protected ancestral stories using state-of-the-art drones and light projections.

Ask an Australian about any of this, and you are likely to be met with a mixed response. While popular opinion is widely supportive of these changes, there is complicated debate around the details—and the degrees to which the changes should be made. As an American Down Under, I found it all to be a rousing, and painful, reminder of just how much remains to be acknowledged on our own shores. It’s also a reminder that there is much more happening on our cousin continent that warrants our close attention, beyond the marsupials, the Hemsworth brothers and the Great Barrier Reef.

Related: Q&A with Australia Tourism and Aboriginal Community Experts: Nicole Mitchell and Rob Hyatt

Says Laura Brown, a longtime Aussie ambassador and the former editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine: “The blessing and the curse of ‘The Land Down Under’ is its distance from the world.” Indeed, many American and European travelers shy away from a trip to the country in apprehension of the nearly 24-hour-long flight—and, perhaps, the much-discussed volume of lethal locals, who are known to bite. (I speak strictly of flora and fauna, of course.) But for those who are willing to brave the journey, what awaits is well worth it: one of our world’s largest but least densely populated—and most epically diverse—destinations. What’s more, travelers to Australia now have the chance to witness a country in a period of transformation: After the devastation of the 2019-2020 bushfires and the severe, years-long lockdown and border policies of the pandemic, Australia is finally welcoming back visitors—with hotels both new and reimagined, fresh culinary, cultural and outdoor adventures and plenty of exciting developments, as it prepares to host the 2032 Summer Olympics (including “Project Sunrise” from Qantas, which will offer new direct flights to Sydney and Melbourne from New York and London that will include dedicated wellness zones, as well as the opportunity to see not one but two sunrises on board, over 22 hours).

Australia is vast, and itinerary options are abundant. (The notion that this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip is misguided, as you could not possibly cover everything of interest in a single visit; even after two weeks in country, I spent the long flight home reviewing all of the places I’d have to come back for—like Perth and the Margaret River, Lord Howe Island, and all of Tasmania.) For a first exploration, Indagare typically recommends spending 10 to 14 days (minimum), split between Sydney (and Melbourne, if possible), Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef—with a few nights at a spectacular wilderness resort like Lizard Island, Qualia, Longitude 131, Saffire Freycinet or Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island (which is scheduled for a grand reopening on December 6, after being razed to the ground by the bushfires). When I traveled to Australia in June—which is the beginning of their winter season—I focused on the southeastern corner, exploring destinations both iconic and off the beaten path in the states of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland (the country is divided into six states and two territories, total).

Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to learn more about planning a trip to Australia. Our team can match you with the itineraries, accommodations, reservations, activities and guides that are right for you. Plus: Explore the Indagare Guide to Australia.

With a few travel industry companions, I began in Sydney—where we experienced the annual Vivid art and music festival from the city’s best vantage point, the harborfront Park Hyatt, and toured the absolutely gorgeous new Capella hotel, which is a must-stay for anyone who prefers high design and soulful style over a prime location and family-friendly amenities. From here, we explored the Southern Highlands, an upscale, bucolic region just a 90-minute drive from Sydney that is often compared to the Hamptons, but is more akin to Hudson Valley and Sonoma, or the Cotswolds. Designers and celebrities like Nicole Kidman keep homes there, and it’s heralded by locals as the under-the-radar luxury destination that’s only just coming onto the traveler’s map. Along with golf, horseback riding, hiking, antiquing and vibrant art, farm-to-table cuisine and wine scenes, a particular draw of the Southern Highlands is Osborn House, a chic boutique hotel that opened in 2022.

The property overlooks Morton National Park (so keep an eye out for Roos at dusk), and it contains a historic main house—built in 1892 as the private residence of socialites George and Dinah Osborn—as well as freestanding, rustic one-bedroom cabins (for 22 unique accommodations total), a small spa and pool and three dining concepts (George’s, Dinah’s and The Green Door). The property was brought to life by Linda Boronkay, the original designer for Soho House—so lovers of texture, shape and color will be well fêted here.

Additional highlights include the supremely comfortable, Frette-clad beds, the whimsical murals painted by artist-in-residence Jai Vasicek and the Fire Feast, an over-the-top Argentinian wood-burning answer to a British Sunday Roast, held for guests (with some open seats for locals) every week. Preparations by the predominantly Argentinian culinary team begin at 6:00 a.m. sharp, and the rosé (and charred meats) flow freely from lunch into dinner.

Related: Why Go Now: Sydney, Australia

A two-hour flight from Sydney brought us to Adelaide, which sits within an hour's drive of some of Australia’s finest wine country. We meandered through the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa—where, despite being considered New World producers, unassuming wineries are working some of the oldest vines on the planet (these hardy Australian cultivars survived the Phylloxera disease that nearly wiped out western European vines in the 19th century). While based at top accommodations in the area—Sequoia Lodge and The Louise—we tasted our way through some fantastic wineries and restaurants, including: Hutton Vale Farm (where seventh-generation descendants of Australia’s first free farmers continue to cultivate the land and foster agrotourism); Mount Lofty Ranges, where my mind was changed on Rieslings (I found their varieties to be more crisp and mineral-forward than most German ones, especially when paired with the restaurant’s locally sourced plates); Deviation Road, where business and life partners Hamish and Kate Laurie produce cool-climate sparkling wines in the Champagne style (Kate spent years studying winemaking at the Lycée Viticole d’Avize); and Seppeltsfield and Torbreck, two of the Barossa’s biggest names (Seppeltsfield is particularly known for their fortified wines, while Torbreck specializes in Grenache and Shiraz). A few other wineries on my radar that didn’t make the itinerary include Tscharke and Hentley Farm in the Barossa, and MMAD Vineyard in McLaren Vale—while extended oenophilic adventures could continue even further to include the nearby Clare and Eden Valleys.

Related: Up-and-Coming Wine Regions to Know Now

An afternoon excursion into Adelaide proper was enough to introduce us to R.M. Williams, Australia’s uncontested leather and stockman-chic clothing manufacturer (if every sophisticated Swede has a piece from Svenskt Tenn in their home, every well-dressed Aussie owns a pair of R.M. Williams boots). The Adelaide headquarters are open for shopping experiences and private tours (each pair of boots passes through 88 pairs of hands as they are made). Other discoveries included the Jam Factory, a popular gallery showcasing the work of local creatives, and the lovely, relaxed lunch spot Peter Rabbit, which serves delicious, fresh sandwiches and salads, as well as local beers on tap. That said, this center for art and artisan crafts, music, film and food deserves a longer visit, if you have the time.

Just before we ended our tour with a final stop on the Gold Coast—which is home to some of Australia’s top beaches, like Surfers Paradise, wild rainforests and burgeoning art and food scenes, with easy access to the city of Brisbane, declared by Aussies of varied provenance to be the easiest port of entry/exit—we jetted up to the Flinders Ranges on a Pilatus PC-12 (an hour's flight from Adelaide to Hawker), for an overnight at Arkaba. This incredibly remote homestead offers a unique taste of Outback wilderness: the former sheep station protects nearly 64,000 rewilded acres, with accommodations for only 10 guests—but plenty of kangaroos and emus.

The experience is closer to a B&B than a glamping or safari lodge (amenities and staff are few, the bedroom doors don’t lock, and guests are encouraged to make themselves quite at home)—but for adventurous, low-maintenance pioneers, Arkaba is a place where you can begin to fathom just how untouched Australia still is. With a population of approximately 25 million people—over 80 percent of whom live on the coasts or near cities—and nearly three million square miles of landmass (versus the United States’ nearly 3.8 million square miles of landmass, to a population of 332 million), Australia is considered to be the fourth least-densely populated country in the world, preceded only by Greenland, Namibia and Mongolia. Oral history has it that as late as 1986, there were still Aboriginal groups living deep in the bush who had not yet made contact with Europeans. Places like this are a rarity in our modern world—and they’re growing rarer by the second. As one of our guides explained on a bushwalk, it seems that this is starting to sink in: “The bushfires showed us there is native knowledge that was here before that we need to listen to. We’re looking back now.” As Australia revisits the value of its origins in a cycle of rebirth from the ashes, it has the potential to blaze a trail for others.

Related: Our Team on The Best Destinations Without Crowds

On my voyage Down Under, there were so many moments of wow: conquering my fear of heights to summit the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which rises 440 feet above sea level (or, as our guide kindly framed it, about 30 stories high, or a five-second free-fall); meeting a koala who had been rescued from the Kangaroo Island fires at Cleland Conservation Park; sipping 1995 vintage Tawny port straight from the barrel on Seppeltsfield’s “Taste Your Birth Year” tour, next to the barrels King Charles commissioned for William, Harry and the grandchildren (pre-Megxit); being welcomed on country in a smoke ceremony performed by Sunny, an Elder of the Wodi Wodi people, who shared stories from his childhood growing up on a mission—and an encyclopedic knowledge of American pop culture; and off-roading in the Outback with a Crocodile Dundee-esque tracker, as scores of kangaroos hopped off into the sunset. But amid these vivid moments, the memories that really stick, weeks later, are those of Australia’s homegrown hospitality, its casual luxury and its authentic, warm approach to the world—and the many, many guides and hosts who shared their lives with us, for an afternoon or a day or a meal. We heard ghost stories over cocktails in a former prison turned members club, Berrima Vault House, and horror stories from a former BridgeClimb guide over a meal at Mishy’s in Sydney’s trendy Surry Hills (where we were educated on the meaning of a “Code Sierra”). We clutched our stomachs and tears rolled down our cheeks as we were regaled with tales of pranks by Adrian Levy, the general manager of Osborn House, and Sonya Smith, the general manager of The Louise. We fawned over the white Labrador Retriever of first-class guiding duo—and husband and wife—Jamie and Alex, who treat their guests more like family than clients (and ply them with wonderful home-cooking). We played with banksias and edible flowers like schoolchildren on a bushwalk with an American expat naturalist named Travis. And we felt the sweet sadness that comes when you must part from new friends made on the opposite end of the globe.

For all its superlatives and significance, perhaps what most sets Australia apart is actually this simplicity. The humble beauty of breathing in eucalyptus and myrtle carried along on the morning breeze; of jumping into the sea with your clothes on and gasping from the cold shock; of languidly boating through a golden afternoon, with a dog resting on your lap; of shouting out from a high place and bending low to discover something in the brush; of marveling at the stars overhead and savoring sips of wine by the fire; of listening to a story. When everything else is so complicated, isn’t it nice for some things to be simple?

Related: Just Back from New Zealand

Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to learn more about planning a trip to Australia. Our team can match you with the itineraries, accommodations, reservations, activities and guides that are right for you. Plus: Explore the Indagare Guide to Australia.

Published onAugust 17, 2023

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