A hotel that is extraordinary and different to the usual…
„Welcome to Australia“- when I read that sign at the airport of Sydney I was so excited that I even forgot how tired I was from that long journey from Amsterdam to Sydney. It was such a relief to finally arrive after traveling for almost 30 hours. I don’t think I have ever been on a plane for that long, but I knew that it is going to be worth the long journey. I have always dreamed of going to Australia, but it always seemed so far away and since you at least need three weeks off if you are traveling to Down Under from Europe, I didn’t get the chance to visit before. In Germany it is quite common to do a Work & Travel holiday in Australia after graduating from high school, but back in the days as a sweet 18 year old I didn’t really dare to do it.
Well 5 years later I finally made it to Australia- no work, just travel. With a limited amount of time at my hands, I needed to choose wisely. Australia is huge and it is simply impossible to see it all in a short amount of time. I found the East Coast the most interesting for me to start my adventure Down Under. I already knew I will come back to explore more of this beautiful country, so there was absolutely no need to rush it on this trip. To make the most of the time I had here, I opted to go with a tour company instead of organizing something on my own. I travelled with Stray in Asia before who organize great hop-on, hop-off tours that give you the comfort of a group tour, but with enough freedom to stay longer at places if you feel like you want to explore more. A great bonus is that they always try to include some sort of off the beaten path and local experiences making it a very unique experience. This fact really distinct them from other tour companies. I usually organize all my trips by myself and Stray really changed my view of group tours. I still had enough freedom, however the stress of organizing was taken away from me. Plus if you only have a limited amount of time, you don’t want to waste it on figuring out how to get to places or inconvenient transportation times.
Loka Travel recently joined Stray and now operates as Stray Australia– extending their network to New Zealand, Asia and Australia. Since I only made good experiences with them previously, I decided to travel from Sydney to Cairns on their new Mick Freestyle Tour that just launched in October. It includes the transportation up the East Coast, first night’s accommodation at each stop, activities and some meals as well. There are so many exciting and diverse spots on this tour, therefore I think I will get some great first impressions of the diversity and beauty of Australia. From cities, to mountains, vineyards, rainforest, beaches and island- that tour offers it all.
For this trip I decided to write a travel diary to share my experiences in Australia along with lots of photos with you guys. In case you are planning a trip to Australia or thinking of traveling with Stray, it should also give you some great insights.
Day 1: Arriving in Sydney
Sydney- there she was. Already from the flight I got a quick peek over the harbor bridge and the world famous opera house. What a sight! Couldn’t wait to make my way there to finally see it up close with my own eyes. Immigration was quick and since the airport isn’t that far out of the city I got to Central Station in no time. Stray works together with the YHA and the Wake Up hostels nearby. I was a bit too early for check in, so after a quick shower I headed out to explore. This is also the best tip to fight jet lag. Try to stay awake until the evening when you arrive somewhere new. You will wake up fresh and early the next day.
Every Saturday there is an artisan fair in Glebe, a hip local neighborhood in Sydney. Along with cute handmade items such as jewellery, clothes and other treasures, you will find vintage items and delicious food stalls. Also the cafés in the neighborhood are worth checking out. From there I made my way to Darling Harbor, past the Harbor Bridge to the Opera House.
As I was meeting a friend for lunch I took the ferry to Kiribilly. Forget the expensive harbor cruises. With the ferry you get equally nice views for a fraction of the price. Célcius Coffee Co. is right when you get off the ferry. Their beautiful breakfast items have been all over my Instagram feed and I was keen to try it myself. Be aware the wait can be quite long since it is a small place.
After heading back to Clarkes Quay I wandered through the Botanical Garden (which is free) back to the hostel and basically passed out right after I was in my bed. I was so tired after all the travels.
Day 2: Blue Mountains National Park
The Blue Mountains are something not to miss when in Sydney. I didn’t know that a place like this would exist within an hour and a half drive from Sydney. Don’t skip it, it is so stunning. The Blue Mountains are 2,5 times the size of the Grand Canyon. Stray operates a great day trip there. While this trip was included in my tour, you can also book it individually as an add-on to your travel pass or just as a day trip if you are living or staying in Sydney. Pick up was nice and early and since we all had a power nap in the bus we arrived at the National Park in no time. From there we were going to start an easy hike through the park. We came across some epic view points and stunning nature. Our final stop on the first part of the hike was the Wentworth falls.
We stopped for a break and photo op and some of the boys even went for a swim. After a steep hike back up all the stairs, we got some delicious sandwiches for lunch that were included in the tour. A quick drive later we got to a different part of the park- The Three Sisters. It is a stunning rock formation and the view is out of this world. The last stop on this tour was a part of the National Park where you can spot wild kangaroos. We got lucky and I tell you I was so excited to see a mother kangaroo with her child eating grass and jumping around. What a nice way to end the day in the Blue Mountains before driving back to Sydney. I enjoyed some dinner together with new friends that I made on the tour. After a quick stroll through Darling Harbor at night it was time for bed again.
Day 3: Exploring more of Sydney
Sydney I wished I had a bit more time on my hands. I woke up nice and early- thank you jet lag and since I was feeling a bit hungry I headed to a famous café called „The Grounds of Alexandria“. If you are going to Sydney, you do have to eat there at least once. The healthy breakfast bowl that I had was good and the setting was extremely beautiful. Perfect for pics. As Christmas is coming up soon, they had an entire area dedicated to Disney’s „Nutcracker“. The decoration was so on point. At the Grounds they even have live chickens and pigs.
The weather was gorgeous this day so I decided to explore some more what Sydney has to offer. We went back to Circular Quay for some amazing views of the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House and had a drink at the Opera Bar. From there we made our way to Bondi Beach- probably the most famous beach in Sydney famous for its surfers and its laid-back life style. I have seen plenty of pictures of the Bondi Icebergs, so that was something I was very keen checking out. If you want to take a swim the entrance fee is quite reasonable from 7AUD $, alternatively you can also have a drink or some food in the restaurant overlooking the pool.
The coastal walk is quite popular, so we made our way to Coogee past Bronte Beach. The coastline is rocky and wild and the views are just stunning, and I am not only talking about the scenery 😉 After some dinner it was time to head back to our hostel.
Day 4: Hunter Valley- Wine tasting and tubing in Barrington Tops
Nice and early was the pick up from our hostel this morning. Our Stray Tour was officially going to start. Stray has their own bus which really is a luxury. The size of the groups is on average around 20 people- a nice mix of people from all over the world. So even if you are going to start this tour solo, you will end the trip with tons of friends from all over the world.
The first stop of our tour was to taste some Australian wines in the Hunters Valley- a wine area about a 2.5 hour drive away from Sydney. I mean there is no better way to start the day with a wine tasting at 10 am right? After a small introduction of the vineyard and the basic of how to actually taste wines, it was time to try a selection of whites and reds. I ended liking the „opening act“ so much that I took a bottle with me.
All a bit happier than before, we continued our journey after a lunch break to Barrington Tops National Park. This is one of the Strademarks places on the Stray Tour. These are special places or experiences that embody Stray’s ethos as an adventurous, off the beaten track, travel company. Barrington Tops National Park as part of the Gondwana Rainforest and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The views are amazing and there is plenty of things to do from hiking, to tubing and beyond. We stayed in a small lodge overlooking the valley and the farm it was situated on. Right after we got there it was time to go tubing. For a big part we floated down the river and there were also some falls that speeded things up a bit. It was a really fun experience. After we got back we all jumped in the hot tub and enjoyed the sunset with some snacks and drinks. Our evening program was eating yummy pizzas out of the wood fired pizza oven and playing games. Since we were in such a remote location,we didn’t have -cell phone reception, which was great as everybody was more present, we got to know each other better and bonded as a group. The next morning after some breakfast it was time to head to our next stop.
Day 5-6: Spot X Surf Camp
Australia and surfing does belong together. So of course we had to try it out while on our Stray Australia tour up the east coast. The surf camp is located on one of the best spots to try out surfing for beginners. We broke the long trip up a bit with a stop at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie. This was my first time seeing koalas in real life and it was great to learn about those fascinating animals. They spend most of their day sleeping and are awake for around 4hours to eat- what a life. Some of the koalas at the hospital have a really sad story, while entrance is free, they do rely on volunteers and donations and we were more than happy to support the project with a few dollars.
After a long drive we stopped at Emerald Beach where we were able to see lots of wild kangaroos roaming around freely. Such a cool experience. For Australians it is quite a common sight as they have so many kangaroos. There are 44 million kangaroos in Australia and only 24 million people. Yet for us tourist it was something completely new and we couldn’t stop taking photos.
When we got to the surf camp, we had dinner and participated in a pub quiz at the local pub. I have never done a pub quiz before, it was great fun and our team „The undead drop bears“ even came first.
The next morning it was time to try out surfing. At the Spot X surf camp they have a team of very motivated instructors from all over the world that started explaining us the basics of surfing. Some people never surfed before, others had a bit experiences but were still beginners. I tried surfing 2 times before, but for the first time I finally understood what I was supposed to do. I found the instructors to be very helpful. We were around 10 people for one instructor that morning. Our surf lesson took two hours and quite a few managed to stand up. I personally didn’t, but that is due to my lack of coordination. It is a lot to remember all at once and definitely more difficult than it looks. However I did have fun and will not give up. The surf camp would have been a great place to hop off as well if you want to get better at surfing. With the limited amount of time at my hands it was a fun way to try it out and I will do a prober surfing holiday next. The Mojo surf camp is located at a few great surf spots in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, I will be back for sure.
Day 6: Canoeing in Nymboida and Aussie BBQ at River Retreat
The adventure continued right away. After the surfing we had some more fun things lined up. The next stop on our tour was Nymboida, which is known for its large river system that offers world-class canoeing and kayaking. We had two awesome guides with us that gave us some great tips about canoeing. We spent around two hours on the river and once we got to the campsite our awesome tour guide Linda prepared an incredible Australian BBQ for us. Australians love to do BBQ and there was literally everything you can imagine. She even made her own traditional Australian bread called damper and we got to try kangaroo for the first time. After dinner we all sat around the campfire to roast marshmallows and shared some stories. We even had some musical talents in our group, so we got to enjoy some guitar music and singing as well. I believe those experiences are so valuable as a group and end up being some of the nicest memories on the tour and it was definitely a very memorable evening.
Day 7: Swimming in rock pools and arriving at Byron Bay
After a nice breakfast it was time to continue the journey as we had a bit of a drive ahead of us. I love how Stray makes time to stop at interesting spots along the way- this really sets them apart. You could take a regular Greyhound bus to move around Australia too, but you would miss out on some awesome stops and all the fun. Our guide Linda asked us whether we would like to go swimming and since it was a nice day, we had a little break at the Angourie Blue and Green Pools. After a refreshing dip in the pools we got back to the bus and headed directly to Byron Bay. Linda has been a tour guide for over twenty years and you can really tell how passionate she is about this job. It was a lot of fun with her being on the bus and she had a lot of cool tips for us on what to do at our next stop Byron Bay. After a quick tour of all the hotspots of Byron Bay, Linda dropped us at the hostels.
Byron Bay is a really fascinating place on the coast. The vibes and views are magical and there are tons of nice cafés and shops to wander around. We checked in at the Wake Up Hostel which used to be a former resort on the beach. Guests can hire surfboards and bikes for free and up to this date it definitely has been one of the nicest hostels I have ever stayed in. We headed straight into town to explore. After some shopping and ice cream we made our way to the Beach Hotel that organize some great concerts on weekends. To watch the sunset we went to Main Beach where a lot of people gather in the evening to hang out, play music and dance. I fell in love with Byron Bay from the start and was looking forward to explore more the next day.
What an incredible first week it has been in Australia. I have seen and experienced so much already that somehow I got the feeling I already spent months here. It was a lot of fun already and I met so many people on the tour. Curious what the next weeks are going to bring…