It had been three years since I was in Australia. Every other continent has been on my travel agenda since then, multiple times, but not Australia. With the borders finally reopened, it was time.
The purpose of my return Down Under was to report on the Tourism Australia conference, which was taking place in-person for the first time since 2019. Like many travelers, I wanted to tack on some leisure time to my trip, and this time I went beyond the big cities to explore coastal waters and the countryside.
A view of the New South Wales coastline from a Sydney Seaplanes aircraft. Photo Credit: Ramsey Qubein
Following several days of meetings, I took off over Sydney Harbour with Sydney Seaplanes from its new sea terminal and headed north. The seaplane flight made low passes over Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, and Manly and Bondi beaches. We were bound for the Hawkesbury River, where we splashed down after a 40-minute flight.
From there, this vegetarian boarded an oyster boat to explore how the region's oysters are farmed. Sydney Oyster Farm Tours is beyond an educational experience; it's a romantic one, too.
After learning about different kinds of oysters and even the global diseases that can bring oyster farmers to their knees (much like Covid did), the tour culminates with lunch at tables sunken into the water. The idea, born from Covid social-distancing rules, lets guests sample local oysters along with a glass of bubbly as well as fruit and cheese.
Sydney Oyster Farm Tours concludes its experience with white-cloth dining in the Hawkesbury River. Photo Credit: Ramsey Qubein
Donning waders enables guests to stand waist deep in the river without getting wet. In the water are innovative tables fashioned from oyster crates and covered in white table cloths. It's the kind of Aussie experience that I would never have imagined before the pandemic, when I would have been glued to the country's biggest cities (and a few nearby vineyards).
That's what Australia is all about, a mesmerizing mix of urban and rural adventures. Similar in size to the continental U.S., Australia's surprises come from all the spaces in between the urban hot spots.
Port Stephens, for example, is an underrated gem just two hours from Sydney. Here, guests can take dolphin-watching tours, sail around the coastline, explore Nelson Bay's varied restaurants or slide down the Stockton Bight Sand Dunes in the Worimi Conservation Lands. These are the largest moving coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.
What I most enjoyed was a visit to the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, which opened during the pandemic. Koalas that have been injured or orphaned are brought here for care while they live in a natural habitat. It's a family-friendly experience complete with glamping tents to sleep amid the wildlife.
A koala at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary. Photo Credit: Ramsey Qubein
No visit to this part of New South Wales would be complete without exploring wine country. Hunter Valley was one of the country's first wine-growing regions, and its rolling hills and lush countryside produce exceptional wine. The most popular varietals are the Chardonnay and Semillon grapes (of which I am now an aficionado, cheers!). Shiraz (Syrah to non-Australians) is another Hunter Valley staple.
To appreciate just how varied the landscape is, one must see it from a bird's-eye perspective. Hunter Valley Helicopters or Balloon Aloft Hunter Valley (I traveled with them both) will take you high in the sky, and if you're lucky, you'll spot kangaroos in the wild and the country's famous cockatoo birds.
A balloon ride with Balloon Aloft Hunter Valley. Photo Credit: Ramsey Qubein
I calmed my post-flight nerves with visits to area wineries to watch the masters at their craft. Most offer tours and have swoon-worthy degustation menus that can round out a weekend afternoon quite nicely.
Brokenwood, a popular spot for weekend brunch or vineyard tours, is a popular destination, and the family-owned Margan winery is known for its organic gardens that supply its "farm-to-fork" restaurant.
I stayed at one of Hunter Valley's most prestigious estates, the 70-room Voco Kirkton Park, which sits on 70 acres of mountanview scenery and is convenient for visiting area wineries. A personal visit from a kangaroo outside my patio was a highlight.