Australia is back. Following two years of some of the world’s strictest pandemic border closures, Australia opened six of its seven states to vaccinated travelers on February 21—no quarantine required. (Western Australia is expected to open soon, on March 3.)
Travel industry leaders in Australia, including James Baillie, founder of the country’s iconic Baillie Lodges, are eager to see the return of international travelers after a difficult few years, which included the devastating 2019–2020 wildfire season that preceded the pandemic.
Even amid border and state closures, Baillie and his wife, Hayley Baillie, have moved forward with sustainability-minded hotel projects. In early February 2022, they broke ground on Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, their world-renowned retreat that burned down in January 2020; they plan to reopen the property in late 2023.
“We’re hoping that travelers will heed some of the positive lessons from the pandemic,” Baillie said, “to linger longer and dive deeper in a destination and learn about its environment, its flora and fauna and its communities—to meet the people and ultimately to have a more meaningful and sustainable travel experience.”
As the Land Down Under welcomes back international travelers, there’s no shortage of destination news—with plenty of sustainable and culturally enriching experiences to choose from. Read on for a destination-specific rundown of the highlights.
New South Wales
This region is famous for the cosmopolitan metropolis of Sydney, along with sparkling, golden-sand beaches that line Australia’s eastern coast. The bohemian coastal surfer town of Byron Bay has gone upscale in recent years, drawing visitors like Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy. But it has retained the laid-back appeal that lures both weekending Australians and international sand and sun worshippers. Go during the Australian fall and winter between March and August, when there are fewer rainy days and crowds thin out.
Located on a quiet street about a 10-minute drive from town, the new Sunseeker channels the area’s chilled-out spirit. Housed in a renovated 1980s motel, the property exudes a retro SoCal aesthetic, with a kidney-shaped pool and wicker seating. The 12 guest rooms are decorated with furnishings created by local makers, while six stand-alone bungalows with outdoor baths and private gardens are geared toward families.
From reefs and beaches to sprawling rain forests, Queensland has it all when it comes to epic nature experiences. Just over an hour’s drive north of the Sunseeker, the Langham Gold Coast will open in mid-2022 with 169 guest rooms, including 32 suites with panoramic Pacific Ocean views. The hotel occupies the lower floors of a new residential building and was designed—using natural hues like teal and tan—by Sydney-based Studio Aria. Its coastal location in the town of Surfers Paradise will offer guests direct access to the beach.
Up in Tropical North Queensland, Silky Oaks Lodge reopened in December 2021 after a multimillion-dollar renovation by Baillie Lodges. The lodge sits along the banks of the Mossman River on 100 acres of land that neighbor the UNESCO-designated Daintree Rainforest, which at 180 million years is the world’s oldest rain forest. The lodge’s sustainable management policy aims for a light footprint, with efforts ranging from refillable bathroom amenities to an on-site wastewater plant that uses recycled water from the lodge to irrigate the property’s forested areas.
Pair a jungle adventure with a jaunt to the nearby Great Barrier Reef: Just an hour from the lodge lies Cairns Airport; from there, fly to Lizard Island, a sandy bolthole on a secluded island with access to the UNESCO-designated reef ecosystem.
Nature, culture, and otherworldly landscapes draw visitors to Australia’s Northern Territory, and Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel is offering new cultural immersion itineraries that bring together all these elements.
On the Premium Red Centre itinerary, visitors spend six days exploring the millennia-old relationship between Aboriginal cultures and the landscapes of the arid Red Centre outback. Stops include the Uluru sandstone monolith, which is sacred to the Anangu people, and Kings Canyon, where a rim walk immerses hikers in a rust-colored landscape that’s home to more than 600 native animal and plant species.
For travelers who want to go farther off the beaten path, the five-day Trek the Larapinta Trail camping itinerary takes hikers on a guided trek through part of the lesser-known, 143-mile Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell region. Guests pass winding rivers and open plains while learning about the region’s cultural and geological history along the way.
Intrepid’s new culture-themed trips extend into Western Australia, too. The nine-day Premium Kimberley & Bungle Bungles trip offers a glimpse at the millennia-old First Nations history of the northwest Kimberley region from descendants of the Walmadjari and Nyigina peoples. Guided walks lead to the gorges, waterfalls, and red-rock formations that characterize the region, which is considered one of the largest wilderness areas but has a population of fewer than 40,000 people.
In the southern part of Western Australia, the five-day Margaret River and Albany Adventure starts in Perth and focuses on First Nations traditions through bushwalks in search of medicinal plants and didgeridoo performances in the culturally significant Ngilgi Cave. Travelers will also spend time in the Margaret River wine region tasting locally made cheeses, chocolate, and cabernet sauvignons.
Shiraz and cabernet grapes are among those that thrive in the Mediterranean climes of South Australia’s Barossa Valley wine region. And now, there’s a new adults-only resort that will allow oenophiles to fully indulge in the region’s grown-up pursuits.
Opened in August 2021, Sequoia Lodge is located in the Adelaide Hills about 15 minutes by car from downtown Adelaide and sits on Mount Lofty Estate, also home to the Mount Lofty House boutique hotel and a handful of restaurants. The 14 suites at Sequoia, each a sprawling 800 square feet, are decorated with oil paintings by local artist Stephen Trebilcock, and each is equipped with fireplaces made with local stone, freestanding tubs, and valley views that extend for miles. Sequoia Lodge puts travelers within a 30-mile radius of the area’s world-class wineries.
In Victoria’s capital of Melbourne, a Ritz-Carlton will debut in September 2022. Housed in a skyscraper in the Central Business District, the Ritz, once open, will be the city’s tallest hotel. In the meantime, stay in the United Places Botanic Gardens, composed of 12 residential-feeling guest rooms that face the Royal Botanic Gardens.
This year will also see the debut of Melbourne Skyfarm on the 21,000-square-foot rooftop of a carpark. The farm, which opens to the public with a café and events in mid-2022, will showcase regenerative growing practices and offer samples of products made on-site like honey.
For a more comprehensive taste of Australian flavors, head to the recently opened Big Esso restaurant. There chef Nornie Bero, a descendant of the Indigenous Meriam people, plays with ingredients from her childhood in the Torres Strait Islands, which lie in the waterway that separates Australia from Papua New Guinea. Her seasonal menu, served in a dining room decorated with artwork from Indigenous Australian artists, might include charred emu filet and lemon aspen-charred arti, or octopus—much of it sourced sustainably and from First Nations, LGBTQ+, and women-owned businesses.
On the wild and remote island state of Tasmania, Hobart city has seen a few exciting additions to its hotel scene. The Tasman, a Luxury Collection Hotel, is turning heads with its reimagined 1840s and art deco heritage buildings near the city’s waterfront. The 152 guest rooms, some with gas fireplaces, have marble bathrooms and inlaid ceilings made with native sassafras timber.
Nearby in the gallery and shop-filled MidTown neighborhood, the Rox, an 1880 building that became a sleek hotel last year, has accommodations with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, and natural wood furnishings.
In the island’s interior, along the shores of Lake St. Clair, the Pumphouse Point resort is hosting guests of Walk Into Luxury, which leads new four-day guided walks that explore the lake and nearby parks like Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.
Meanwhile along the Tasman Peninsula, Southern Sea Ventures is offering travelers a new way to see whales. A resident biologist joins guests on a three-night paddling itinerary near the peninsula in search of migrating humpback and southern right whales and also takes them to less-accessible coastlines and outlying islands.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Australia
Jennifer Flowers Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.