Sydney Opera House

Australia is the sixth largest country in the world. It's about the same size as the 48 mainland states of the USA and 50 per cent larger than Europe, but has the lowest population density in the world - only two people per square kilometre. This vast continent (7,686,848 square kilometres)
ranges between desert and tropical rainforest, sophisticated urban
areas with sprawling suburbs and isolated townships in the bush,
stunning mountains and lush pasture. Australians enjoy a magnificent
outdoor lifestyle, with a play-hard, work-hard (well, sometimes, mate)
attitude that makes the most of its natural bounty. German immigrants
planted the vineyards that have granted Barossa Valley wines world
renown, the waves of Italian and Greek settlers did much to promote
Australian cuisine beyond meat pies and beer, while Japanese finance
helped to open up the Gold Coast. In other words, some of the best that the world has to offer is distilled into Australia.

With the possible exception of the purpose-built and rather soulless capital, Canberra, all the Antipodean metropoli exude their own character and allure to the casual visitor. Sydney
is first port of call for many, and indeed where the first British
convicts were dumped in the 18th century. The whole city is inspired
and refreshed by its raison d'etre, the harbour. Overlooked by the
architectural masterpiece of the Opera House, it acts as a focal point
for dining and relaxation, and is the centre of attention during major
events such as the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht race. Melbourne
has always seen itself as a rival, and while it lacks the spectacular
location it has as much charm and sophistication, especially when it
comes to theatre and cuisine, and is equally devoted to sports,
horse-racing and 'footy' to name but two. Adelaide, long known as the place for culture, has shaken off its previously staid image, and Brisbane,
once derided as an overgrown country town, has become increasingly
cosmopolitan after hosting a string of international events like the
Commonwealth Games. Even Darwin, with a certain amount of cinematic
assistance from Crocodile Dundee, has some claim to cool, although the weather is as hot as ever. Perth
claims to be the sunniest of Australian cities, and even rain cannot
damp its bright and breezy ethos. Cairns acts as the jumping off point
for most of northern Queensland, notably to the stunning beauties of
the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest of Cape Tribulation. Alice
more or less in the centre of the continent, would probably not feature
on any itinerary but for the proximity of Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock
– the outback's ultimate landmark and a sacred site for Australia's
original inhabitants, the Aborigines. Mention should also be made of
Australia's offshore islands, from the slightly other-worldly Tasmania
to the hedonistic Hayman in the Whitsundays, which is also a prime
venue for whale watching and scuba diving.

Most of Australia's 18 million inhabitants live in the coastal areas, so it follows that this is where the best hotels are. For location – right under the Harbour Bridge and looking on the Opera
House – it would be hard to better the Park Hyatt in Sydney, and up on the Gold Coast the Palazzo Versace
is an intriguing jeu d' esprit of very modish accommodation. Head
inland, and the main places to lay your head are bland motels or beery
country pubs, where service echoes the old Australian ethos of 'I'm as
good as you are, mate.' Between these two stellar stools is a range of
decent resorts well placed to make the best of Down Under's natural
assets of sun, sand and sea.

The weather
varies immensely over such a vast continent, but all of Australia is
hot in the summer between December and February, and the north is
especially humid. It is best to time visits to the Top End during the
cooler winter (June – August) and this is also when the snowfields of
Victoria and New South Wales open up. In spring, large stretches of the
outback are carpeted with wildflowers. Hotels are often booked solid
over Easter, Christmas and other school holidays.