Second cities: The best destinations to visit from Sydney

Oct 20, 2019

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Welcome to TPG’s series Second Cities. The series is designed to help travelers find smaller or less-popular-but-equally-amazing places to visit that are no more than a few hours by air or land from your original destination so you can maximize your itinerary.

Sydney is big, brash and beautiful and showcases the best of urban Australia. With sights like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge plus golden beaches and national parks teeming with Aussie wildlife, it is one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

Most international visitors, however, don’t get far from the city — yet if you’ve traveled halfway across the planet to get there, you really should make an effort to see more of this unique land.

If you’re in Sydney and want to holiday like a local, here are three destinations within a few hours of the city that showcase the best of the coast, mountains and Outback. Most important, you won’t be too far away from famed Aussie baristas and a good flat white.

The coast: Port Stephens

Port Stephens, like Sydney, is a flooded river valley. Its pristine waterway, located about 120 miles north of the big city, extends inland from the Tasman Sea, framed by picturesque beaches, towering sand dunes, diverse villages and towns with much for travelers to do.

Shoal Bay in Port Stephens. (Photo by lovleah/Getty Images)
Shoal Bay in Port Stephens. (Photo by lovleah/Getty Images.)

Getting there

The nearest airport is at Newcastle, a 45-minute daily flight from Sydney on a regional airline, Rex. Rex is not affiliated with any airline alliance so earning or spending points is not an option. The drive to Port Stephens from Sydney, however, is only around 2.5 hours.

Where to stay

The Bannisters Port Stephens has really upped the local accommodation game. It overlooks the water at Soldiers Point and boasts a spa, an infinity pool and a restaurant helmed by British celebrity chef Rick Stein on its sprawling grounds. Qantas points can be redeemed or earned for stays booked via Luxury Escapes or on the Qantas website.

What to see and do

The Port Stephens area covers a broad swath of coast of the state of New South Wales north of Sydney, but the main focus for visitors is around the Karuah River inlet where a clutch of villages and towns with charming names such as Hawk’s Nest, Gan Gan and Tea Gardens line the north and south shorelines. There are 26 beaches, from the calm resort-style waters of Shoal Bay and the local favorite of Winda Woppa, to the wide ocean beaches of Hawks Nest and Fingal Bay.

Away from the water there are some stunning bush walks, particularly at the heads of the inlet at Tomaree Mountain and Mount Yacabba. If you are lucky, you may see the occasional koala napping in the eucalyptus. The highlight of this area for many visitors however, is dolphin- and whale-watching. More than 140 bottlenose dolphins usually reside in the bay; you are all but guaranteed to see them. You can even get in the water to get close and personal with the dolphins.

The mountains: Blue Mountains World Heritage Area

The suburban sprawl of Sydney extends 31 miles west from the city right up to the base of the Blue Mountains where it comes to an abrupt stop as you start to climb into a different land. This is a world heritage area, an important part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range that runs up the entire East Coast. The rainforests here are descendants of the lush forests that once blanketed Gondwana, the ancient name of the area — a name derived from the oils of the dense eucalyptus forests that created a blue haze over the tree canopy.

Blue Mountains National Park. (Photo by Andrew Merry/Getty Images)
Blue Mountains National Park. (Photo by Andrew Merry/Getty Images.)

Getting there

On a clear day you can see the Blue Mountains from the heart of Sydney. You can drive to Katoomba from the central business district in about 90 minutes or jump on a train from Central Station that will get you there in a little over two hours. Many visitors take a day trip there, but a few days with your own transport are well justified.

Where to stay

The Blue Mountains are full of options for accommodations, but for a special experience you shouldn’t pass on the Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley. Set within its own private conservation reserve, the hotel is regularly rated as one of Australia’s best and most luxurious. Because it’s an Emirates partner hotel you can earn Skywards points here, and if you are a Skywards Gold or Platinum member you can enjoy additional benefits including late checkout and spa discounts.

What to see and do

The Blue Mountains are bursting with natural and man-made wonders. To get acquainted with the area you should visit Scenic World in Katoomba, a mad combination of cable cars, funicular railways and forest walkways that offer epic glimpses across the Three Sisters rock formations and the Jamison Valley. From there, the variety of activities is enormous. You can visit traditional tea rooms, explore the artisan markets and bookshops or hike through dense bushland and forests unchanged for millions of years.

The Outback: Dubbo

For many, the Australia conjures up big skies, red dirt, endless plains and kangaroos bounding across a scorched land. Situated 250 miles west of Sydney, the regional town of Dubbo, famous for its friendly locals, feels like a frontier town at the edge of the Outback, particularly as you start heading west toward the true Outback outpost of Broken Hill.

The town of Dubbo, Australia. (Photo by John Carnemolla/Shutterstock)
The town of Dubbo, Australia. (Photo by John Carnemolla/Shutterstock.)

Getting there

Qantas subsidiary Qantaslink flies round-trip to Dubbo four times a day from Sydney. The one-hour flight is an effective use of your Oneworld points, with one-way Economy Classic Reward flights starting at only 8,000 points.

Where to stay

Dubbo is home to one of Australia’s unique animal attractions, Taronga Western Plains Zoo, a sprawling open-range safari experience that houses over 700 animals from all over the world. The overnight accommodation at the zoo is the place to stay in Dubbo. There are three styles of accommodation: permanent tents, family-friendly savanna cabins or the luxury zoofari lodges. Fall asleep to the sound of the lions and wake up to have breakfast while giraffes and zebras saunter past your cabin.

What to see and do

Whether you stay in Dubbo or journey west, you are all but guaranteed to see some iconic Australian animals including kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas, opossums and venomous snakes. The zoo has many less-iconic ones as well.

Once you have had your fill of animals, Dubbo has a surprisingly wide array of things to see and do. Dubbo locals take their fresh local produce seriously and you will find some excellent wineries nearby and a great farmers market on alternate Saturdays. There are deep cultural roots in this area as well, first from the indigenous Wiradjuri people who have inhabited the land for 40,000 years and then from European settlers who arrived in the 19th century. If you are traveling with family, The Great Big Adventure Pass is a cost-effective way of hitting Dubbo’s top sights.

Featured photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy.

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