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If Australia’s tropical capital was any more laidback, it’d be asleep. Darwin’s the sort of place that considers anything more than shorts and thongs overdressed, a city that ambles along at its own relaxed pace, an indescribable fusion of Asian and Indigenous culture with crocs, cruises, and crimson sunsets over the Timor Sea thrown in for good measure. The alfresco lifestyle flourishes in the city centre, the waterfront foodie hub of Nightcliff, and the iconic Mindil Beach Sunset Market (Thursdays and Sundays during the dry season) when the rain dries up in late April – as does the nightlife on Mitchell St, a night out so lively it has to be seen to be believed. A sunset cruise from Stokes Hill Wharf, an outdoor film at the Deckchair Cinema, sailing across the harbour to the Tiwi Islands, and a dip with a saltie at Crocosaurus Cove (below) are other must-have Top End experiences, while you might also spot crocs in the wild on day trips to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks.
Stay at: Darwin YHA – Melaleuca on Mitchell
This tropical tourist hotspot attracts sun-seeking holiday-makers 12 months a year – but Cairns really fills up with southerners escaping the winter chill mid-year, when the max temperature dips to around 26 degrees, the rain and humidity dries up, and most importantly, the jellyfish bugger off and allow everyone else to enjoy North Queensland’s beaches. Wedged between rainforest and reef, the city of Cairns pulses with bars and backpackers and a beautiful man-made lagoon on the esplanade, but it’s also a great launching pad for day trips to a stack of sights in the surrounding areas. Explore the Great Barrier Reef, the scenic rainforest village of Kuranda, Palm Cove’s gorgeous beaches, the secluded sands of Mission Beach and Dunk Island, the resort town of Port Douglas, the ancient Daintree rainforest near Cape Tribulation, and the tropical paradise of Fitzroy Island (pictured), just a short ferry ride away.
Stay at: Cairns Central YHA
A chain of camels sauntering along Cable Beach as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean is the Instagram shot that lures visitors to this colourful town in the Wild West – but it’s far from the reason you should visit WA’s so-called “pearl of the north”, which enjoys bone-dry 30-degree days while the southern half of the country shivers through winter. Launch a 4WD journey through the rugged untouched Kimberley, catch a flick at the world’s oldest outdoor cinema, check out 130-million-year-old dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point, and have a sip at Matso’s Brewery, which pours frosty mango, ginger, and lychee beer that suits the climate down to the ground, and overlooks Roebuck Bay, where you can witness the Staircase to the Moon reflection at low tide mid-year. And you can’t leave without spending a sunset at Cable Beach, a 22km stretch of pillow-soft sand separating a sea of turquoise water and a backdrop of rich red soil.
Stay at: Broome YHA
Residents of the southern states aren’t the only ones who migrate north to Queensland each winter to escape the mid-year chill – thousands of whales also crawl up the East Coast of Australia seeking warmer waters to mate, give birth, and raise their calves. Their 10,000km journey up the Humpback Highway ends in Hervey Bay, sheltered by Fraser Island, making it the perfect place for whales to recharge the batteries and teach their little ones to swim before the long haul back to Antarctica. And doesn’t the town love its annual visitors, with a 15m whale statue, a nine-day festival celebrating the migration, and an armada of vessels trying to catch a glimpse of the adored visitors between July and November. Fraser Island – the natural barrier that makes Hervey Bay such a humpback hub, and the largest sand island in the world – is also a compulsory stop along the Fraser Coast, home to sweeping sand dunes, deep blue lakes, and a rainforest housing dingoes and an array of birdlife.
Stay at: Hervey Bay YHA
The Red Centre scorches around 40 degrees over summer, but the mid-year temperatures – highs of 20 and lows just above freezing – are much more pleasant conditions to explore Uluru, not to mention the abundance of plant and animal life (kangaroos, wallabies, dingos, emus) that blossoms after the wetter months. Uluru is sacred to its Aboriginal owners who believe the enormous sandstone monolith – 348m in height and 9.4km in circumference – was created at the dawn of time, so you shouldn’t climb it . . . but there are plenty of other ways to experience Australia’s beating red heart, like on the back of a Harley or a camel, from a helicopter or hot air balloon, or with an Indigenous guide to learn more about ancient Dreamtime lore. Don’t skip Kata Tjuta, the domed rock formation formerly known as the Olgas that inspires no less awe than the spotlight-hogging neighbour it shares a national park with, then take a detour to Kings Canyon, a verdant oasis springing out of the red desert sands.
Stay at: Outback Pioneer Lodge
Maggie is the vision of a tropical paradise you thought only existed in cartoons: sparkling turquoise water and white sand beaches, hoop pines shading the 20-plus bays dotted around the island, rock wallabies hopping around granite headlands and koalas lazily hanging out in gum trees, with max temps that never dip below 25 degrees. More than half the island is national park linked by 20km of walking trails that snake around rugged mountains and along stunning coastline, while tiny open-topped cars called mokes – imagine the sort of pink number you’d expect Barbie to drive – are a popular way of getting around. Scale the island’s highest point Mount Cook, watch the sun set at West Point, dive the wreck of SS Yongala, snorkel with brilliant tropical fish in the Geoffrey Bay Reef, ride a horse along the beach then a jet-ski in Horseshoe Bay. And when you’re all tuckered out from island activities, catch the 20-minute ferry back to Townsville, the perfect pit stop on the road between Cairns and the Whitsundays.
Stay at: Magnetic Island YHA