One Week, One Overnight Flight, 7 Over-the-Top Experiences Down Under
You don't need to wait until you have a month's worth of vacation to visit Australia.
If you make Sydney your base, you can experience an amazing cross section of Australia's famed wildlife, beaches, cuisine, culture and landscapes in short order. Here, a week's worth of over-the-top experiences to have Down Under ASAP:
Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Donning a jumpsuit and safety harness like Katy Perry and Ben Stiller before you, brave the stairs, tunnels, and catwalks of this Australian icon (also called "The Coathanger") on the way to the summit, where you'll get the best views of Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House that you can get without a private plane. At the top, strike your favorite pose ("Zoolander 2" offers endless inspiration) for the photo that will prove your climbing cred.
Look out for special climbs that include live music or karaoke at the summit, or that offer unique angles on events (May's VIVID Sydney light festival, for one, is amazing). Book through BridgeClimb Sydney, the company that's been leading high-adrenaline ascents since 1998.
See Sydney Opera House at its most dazzling
The only thing better than seeing a show inside the Jørn Utzon-designed Sydney Opera House is watching a performance set against that singular shimmering silhouette. From March 23 through April 22, you can do just that at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's modern adaptation of "La Bohème", an alfresco production (complete with pop-up restaurants and bars) that turns the Sydney Opera House into part of the backdrop. Adding to the bucket-listy feel? The fireworks that finish out the show.
A few months later (May 25 to June 16), the aforementioned VIVID Sydney is the main attraction, when the city's creative heart beats extra brilliantly with a lineup of light shows, music and provocative ideas. Each VIVID night ushers a surreal series of large-scale illuminations, laser light shows and 3D-mapped projections, using iconic city attractions as a canvas -- even the Sydney Opera House sails.
Hang with kangaroos and koalas
Though Sydney is perhaps better known for its beautiful people, its furry, four-legged inhabitants are no less remarkable. In fact, two of Australia's signature species -- koalas and kangaroos -- are available for mixing and mingling at the harbor-view Taronga Zoo.
After a 15-minute ferry from Circular Quay and an even more scenic Sky Safari cable car ride, you'll arrive at this animal lover's aerie, where the VIP Aussie Gold Tour grants you access to areas that are normally off-limits to anyone without staff credentials. Your guide will help you feed, pet -- or at the very least, take a photo -- with the aforementioned koalas and kangas. Not that they're the only Aussie A-listers in residence here: You'll also find native echidnas, wombats, and -- yes! -- Tasmanian devils.
Surf where the sport first gained global fame
In December 1914, the Hawaiian godfather of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, arrived at Freshwater Beach on Sydney's north shore and paddled his hand-shaped wooden board into Australian surf history: At an exhibition for the press and athletic officials, he caused such a sensation that the sport took off as never before.
And though you could follow in his fabled footsteps at Freshwater Beach, beginners may want to head for the more forgiving waves of nearby Manly Beach, or to the birthplace of Surf Life Saving Australia (the country's lifeguarding program), Bondi Beach, where you'll clearly be in safe hands. Both Manly and Bondi offer surf schools and board rentals. If you're headed up the coast, Byron Bay is a bastion of beautiful boards, waves and people.
Ride the largest shifting dunes in the Southern Hemisphere
For a land-based variation on the surf theme, drive 2.5 hours north to Worimi National Park in Port Stephens. Here, the giant Stockton Beach Sand Dunes beckon. Several local outfitters, including Sand Dune Safaris, specialize in sand boarding, which involves sliding down steep sand towers, some of them 100 feet high, on a custom-built wooden board (picture a snowboard or a skateboard without wheels). If you'd prefer to experience the dunes differently, you can also do 4WD tours, camel rides -- or have a picnic overlooking the real surf.
Sip world-renowned wine in its birthplace
Australia's oldest wine region remains ripe with possibilities, and it's just two hours north of the Harbor City. Considering the sprawling vineyards of semillon, verdelho, cabernet sauvignon, and shiraz (Australia's version of syrah), plus the hidden tasting rooms, creameries, and farm stands around the area, you'll want to reserve at plenty of time for the Hunter Valley.
Fancy organic and biodynamic tastings at Tamburlaine and Krinklewood? Or perhaps a helicopter ride over the rarest of vineyards at Tyrrell's 160-year-old estate? You can go as bucket-listy as you'd like, but save time for a stop at Harkham Wine, where the tasting room has as much personality as the drinks, which include chocolate liqueur -- and mead flecked with 24-karat gold.
Marvel at World Heritage mountains
The Blue Mountains World Heritage area, which encompasses 2.5 million acres of sandstone canyons, waterfall-threaded cliffs and eucalyptus-filled valleys, is just 1.5 hours from Sydney. Named after the region's blue haze -- the presumed result of all that eucalyptus oil -- the Blue Mountains are also home to Aboriginal rock art, rare animals (hope for a glossy black cockatoo sighting) and living fossils (not least, the descendant of a 200-million-year-old pine tree.) Get your bearings at the Echo Point lookout, where the amazing Three Sisters rock formation will stare back at you.
Then explore Scenic World -- a play land of walkways, skyways and the steepest railway in the world. Finally, hike into that stunning canyon you've had your eye on -- and gawk at the Katoomba Falls lookout.
Big-time bonus: Lord Howe Island
If you're willing to go the extra mile -- or more accurately, 370 of them -- hop a quick flight to Lord Howe Island, a crescent-shaped UNESCO World Heritage volcanic reserve that's home to a huge array of endemic species, from endangered woodhens to glowing mushrooms. You'll also find the most amazing craggy peaks, misty cloud forests, and -- here at the southernmost coral reef on earth -- scuba diving and snorkeling.
But whether you explore by foot, boat or flippers, you’re in for a take-your-breath-away kind of treat. Island accommodations, which include the world-famous Pinetrees and Capella Lodge, will be waiting for you with multi-course dinners, stellar spa treatments and butler-tended fireplaces. Over the top indeed.
Sydney is a meal, a movie and a sleep away on Virgin Australia's remodeled fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs, complete with Virgin's signature cabin mood lighting and the widest economy seats of any trans-Pacific flight. Delta connects travelers from 26 U.S. cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, Boston and Miami to the Los Angeles flight.
Here's how to arrive ready to hit the ground running in Sydney after your 15-hour flight:
- Meal: Virgin Australia offers fully inclusive meal and alcoholic beverage service in all cabins, which highlights Aussie cuisine and local wines.
- Movie: Every seat has a personal TV with hours of on-demand entertainment and noise canceling head sets.
- Sleep: Your complimentary toiletry kit comes equipped with an eye mask, socks and amenities to let you rest and wake up refreshed.
- Sunrise: Wake up across the date line to a new day and a breathtaking sunrise as you near Sydney.
- Service: For anything you need on board, the award-winning flight attendants are always nearby. Skytrax has listed Virgin Australia as having one of the best airline staffs in Australia/Pacific for five years running.