Ten amazing Aussie hidden gems
1. Poruma Island, Torres Strait
Mention the Torres Strait and most people think of Thursday Island but it's the outer islands that really give you a sense of what islander culture is all about - islands such as Poruma.
Formerly known as Coconut Island, the tiny coral cay lives up to that name; it's covered in coconut trees and the beaches are littered with fallen coconuts. When you're not fishing or swimming in the crystal-clear, bath-warm water, sit out the heat of the day in the shade sipping coconut milk straight from the shell while chatting to local women weaving baskets and decorations from coconut leaves.
Most of the baskets are used in cooking; filled with rice and lowered into simmering coconut milk, and will probably be served later that night. Community owned and operated, Poruma Island Resort has just two bungalows for visitors but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in style.
Set on the beach, open to the breeze at the front and complete with indoor plunge pool, this is serious luxury accommodation in a place where you least expect it.
But it's the welcome of the locals that really makes this place special.
Where to stay: Poruma Island Resort.
2. Byabarra, NSW mid-north coast
Beyond the handful of locals who live there, hardly anyone has ever heard of Byabarra. And I can't say I blame them. Even driving through, it's easy to miss, given it's really just a clutch of houses perched on a ridgeline overlooking the Thone River Valley in the NSW mid-north coast hinterland.
There's not much to the "village" - just a two-room primary school, a weatherboard church, community hall and a fabulous cafe and art gallery where the valley views from the back deck stretch forever.
The thing that makes Byabarra special is the location. Wind your way up the hill and you'll burst out of the rainforest atop a plateau of lush dairy farms. Turn right and you'll find yourself at Boorgana Nature Reserve, one of the oldest reserves in NSW, full of old-growth cedar and pristine waterfalls. Turn left and you're at Ellenborough Falls, the largest single drop of water in the southern hemisphere.
Drive just 15 minutes down the hill from Byabarra and you're at Wauchope, where on the fourth Saturday of every month the locals from Byabarra and surrounding villages gather to swap gossip and sell whatever's growing at the farmers' market. Another 10 minutes and you can take your pick of any of Port Macquarie's 15 beaches.
Where to stay: Blue Poles Cafe and Gallery, 1086 Comboyne Road, Byabarra.
3. Broken River, Queensland
The locals reckon Broken River in Eungella National Park is the best place on the planet to see platypus in the wild.
Pronounced yun-gulla and meaning Land of the Clouds, it's a 90-kilometre drive west of Mackay and its perennially mist-shrouded and forest-clad mountains contain Australia's longest and oldest stretch of subtropical rainforest. But the main reason most people come to Eungella is to see the platypus at Broken River.
Several viewing platforms are strung along the river near the picnic area, or you can, as we did, simply find a comfortable rock and perch for as long as you like. In 30 minutes we chalked up an amazing 16 sightings of the elusive monotreme and while some may have been making a repeat appearance, I wasn't about to quibble.
It really is one of the best places in Australia to go if you want to see wild platypus.
Where to stay: Broken River Mountain Resort, Eungella Dam Road, Eungella.
4. Chillagoe Caves, Queensland
The glitzy show caves of the southern states may get all the publicity and draw the crowds but there are more than 600 limestone caves in the Chillagoe area, three hours' drive west of Cairns.
There are five caves open for viewing, each one unique. The Royal Arch is the biggest, a series of 13 chambers spread along a 1.5-kilometre passage, with roots from trees and patches of light reaching into the caves and lots of bending and squeezing through tight passages. The smaller Donna Cave, accessed by a long steep stairway, is the prettiest, with dozens of magnificent limestone formations.
Trezkinn Cave is short - basically a steel catwalk encircling a central mass of limestone - but it also has lots of decorations, including the massive "chandelier", a spectacular formation that looks like a mountain of melted wax. There are also two self-guided caves; bring your own torch.
Where to stay: Chillagoe Observatory and Eco Lodge.
5. Trousers Point, Flinders Island, Tasmania
Imagine you've been given the job of coming up with the perfect name for one of the most outrageously gorgeous beaches ever created. You know the type: a near-perfect crescent of blinding white sand lapped by water that is not only implausibly blue but also impossibly clear.
So what would you call it? White Sands? Blue Bay? Paradise Beach? Even, at a pinch, Bikini Cove?
Well, the good folk in charge of these things back in the 1870s on Flinders Island, halfway between Tasmania and Victoria, decided to call it Trousers Point.
Even so, it gets my vote as one of Australia's most beautiful beaches, whatever it's called.
Where to stay: Vistas on Trousers Point, Tasmania.
6. Clunes, Victoria
The goldfields of Central Victoria, around the Ballarat and Bendigo area, were once the richest in the world. In just one decade, from 1851-61, the population of Victoria swelled from 97,000 to almost 540,000.
The discovery of gold has left a rich and lasting legacy of grand hotels and public buildings along the main streets of Ballarat and Bendigo and in historic gardens and homesteads, celebrated in theme parks, sound and light shows and dusty museums.
But you don't need to spend all of your time in a museum to soak up the depth of history - head to Clunes, 35 kilometres north of Ballarat, and it's all around you. Once the fifth-largest town in the colony, it has remained largely unchanged for the past 100 or so years. Most visitors to the area miss Clunes, which is a shame as it is one of the most authentic
19th-century settlements in the country - a glimpse of real gold-rush heritage without the glitz of tourism.
Where to stay: Ella's Cottage, 1 Cameron Street, Clunes.
7. Fish Creek, Victoria
There's something decidedly fishy about Fish Creek, with a population of 201, 165 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. Maybe it's the giant mullet atop the Promontory Gate Hotel (aka the Fishy Pub), looking as if it has just flopped out of the sea and is slightly surprised to find itself perched on the roof.
Perhaps it's the Orange Roughy Cafe, or the brightly painted undersea murals, the Fish Tales secondhand bookshop, or maybe it's just the fish-shaped seats scattered around town.
Even the church seems to be in on the fun, with a giant red Christian fish symbol painted on the roof. The quirky little town on the South Gippsland Highway is just one of South Gippsland's gems, often overlooked in the rush to get to one of Victoria's best-loved national parks, Wilsons Promontory.
Despite all the fish, it's a magnet for artists and there are several good galleries in town, including the Fish Creek Pottery and Gecko Studio Gallery. But if you only have time for one, don't miss the new Celia Rosser Gallery. Rosser, now in her late 70s, has spent the past 35 years collecting, drawing and painting all 78 known species of the banksia.
Where to stay: Wilderness retreats, Wilson Promontory. 13 19 63, parkweb.vic.gov.au.
8. Baird Bay, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
At first glance there's no reason to stay at Baird Bay, on the western side of the Eyre Peninsula.
But it's what you can't see from the beach that makes Baird Bay one of the must-visit spots of South Australia. These cold southern waters are home to a large breeding colony of 70 or so Australian sea lions, one of the rarest of seal species.
Alan and Trish Payne operate Ocean Eco Tours and their amazing half-day tours include swimming with sea lions and, weather permitting, swimming with bottlenose dolphins.
Unlike some wildlife-watching tours that spend hours chasing harassed marine animals around a bay, this one is all about the conservation. The sea lions are never fed and all interaction is initiated by the animals. They come to you. And they love to play.
The more I splashed and duck-dived, the more they responded. In fact, they seemed to mimic me almost exactly - when I circled, so did they; when I surfaced, they came up for a look too; when I dived, they followed.
I guarantee, it's a wildlife adventure you'll never forget.
Where to stay: Baird Bay Apartments and Ocean Eco Tours.
9. Menzies, Western Australia
In 1905 lots of people knew where Menzies was. At 132 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, it had a booming population of 10,000, thanks to the gold rush. But with boom comes bust and it's now just one of several deserted towns littered throughout the goldfields, though it has fared better than most with many stately buildings remaining, including the town hall with its nine-metre clock tower, and the railway station.
Menzies is not completely dead - the population has dwindled to about 400 - but wander down the main street on a Sunday afternoon and it will feel more like 40, half of whom seem to be in the imposing pub.
If you really want to see the locals, head to Lake Ballard, a large, shimmering white salt lake in the red desert 55 kilometres to the west. Artist Antony Gormley took laser body scans of 51 of the Menzies locals and then made casts - life-size in height but shrunk by two-thirds in width.
The resulting stick-like statues, now rusty and pocked from the surrounding harsh salt environment, are scattered over 10 square kilometres of the salt lake.
It's the last place you'd expect to find world-famous art but the goldfields have always been about finding unexpected treasure.
Where to stay: Rydges Kalgoorlie, 21 Davidson Street, Kalgoorlie.
10. Cape Crawford, Northern Territory
Limmen National Park is one of the Northern Territory's best-kept secrets. Tucked away in a seldom-visited corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria west of Borroloola, it's a must-do stop on the trans-continental Savannah Way that crosses the top half of Australia between Cairns and Broome.
Butterfly Springs is a beautiful swimming hole surrounded by paperbarks and exquisite fern-leafed grevillea ablaze with dainty orange flowers that attract hundreds of birds to the oasis during the dry season. It's also home to thousands of Common Crow butterflies that cover the sandstone wall to the right of the pool and arise en masse when you approach.
The beautiful springs are reason enough to visit this remote park but most people come to see the bizarre towering red-rock pillars at the Southern Lost City. At 1.4 billion years in the making, these rocks are some of the oldest in the world. It's a remote and rugged place and, so far, few seem to know it's there so you won't have to share.
Where to stay: BYO tent or swag and camp at Butterfly Springs.