We spent weeks planning for our trip to australia and used this forum as a source of fantastic information. I didn't ever have to post a question though because everything I thought of to ask had already been answered! Just wanted to say thanks to all of the experts (guruswife, alanj, wilnino etc) for spending time sharing their thoughts and ideas. As this was our first trip to oz we had no idea where to start so we built our entire itinerary around recommendations and tips which we read here and booked all of hotels based on reviews on tripadvisor too.
We started our three week holiday in Sydney in mid July, spending 4 days trying to cram in as much as possible. First on the agenda was the harbour bridge climb which we did during the day. We thought before we did it that it was a bit pricey but it was worth every dollar spent. The views were spectacular and our guide was great fun and very knowledgeable. A great start to the holiday.
(We had only been in australia twenty four hours before we lost count of the number of people who had used the words 'winter' and 'cold'. Get over it people!!! We encountered glorious sunshine every day of our holiday. Some of us would kill for summers half as good as your winters.....)
The next couple of days were spent taking various ferries around the harbour admiring the spectacular views, visiting the aquarium, the opera house etc but the highlight was our last day which we spent walking from Spit bridge to Manly. This is something we would never have considered doing (it's certainly not mentioned in any guide books I've read) if we hadn't read the various posts from AlanJ on the subject which sold us on the idea. We did the walk with a couple of friends and arrived in Manly around sunset for dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. Fantastic!
Next stop was Brisbane for four days. We flew with virginblue and jetstar a couple of times each during the three weeks and thought they were both great. Every flight was very cheap but the service was great and the flights were always on time. What more can you ask for?
From Brisbane we visited Steve Irwin's zoo (we saw Steve briefly!) which was great. One of the guides there said there were plans to massively extend the zoo so I reckon it will be an even better place to visit in a few years time. We also visited the lone pine koala sanctuary which, for those that are interested, does give people the opportunity to hold a Koala. We didn't though because neither of us was convinced that any of the koalas were desperate to have their photo taken with either of us!
The only (slight) disappointment of the entire trip was surfer's paradise but only because we're not really into beaches that much and because it just looks like any other tourist trap in the uk or europe with lots of tacky souvenir shops, big hotels etc.
Next stop was Cairns where we stayed at Kewarra beach. We stayed in a lot of nice hotels throughout the visit but this resort was the best of the lot with very helpful and friendly staff, a fabulous setting and a great resturant too. From here we visted Kuranda using the skyrail and scenic railway (fun but overpriced) as well as the GBR using ocean spirit cruises who were excellent. They took us out to the outer reef where they offer diving or snorkelling. We chose to snorkel and loved every minute of it. Truly spectacular.
The highlight of our time in Cairns, though, was a trip into the rainforest. We used Pete Baxendell from daintree specialised tours and haven't stopped talking about the tour since we got back home. He offers personalised tours in his customised jeep up to cape tribulation (or anywhere you might want to go) and gives an absolutely fantastic tour of the region. He offers something completely different from the usual bus tours which take you places then allow the large group of tourists off the bus for 10 minutes for photographs then on to the next stop. This was a full day of great experiences, swimming in a rockpool, swinging on vines, eating bush fruits and the occasional creepy crawly and listening to Pete's many fascinating stories! Great fun and completely different to anything else you're likely to encounter.
We went all the way back down to Melbourne next but only for three days. In hindsight, we would much rather have lost a day or two in Brisbane (surfer's paradise!) and added it to Melbourne because we missed out on a fair bit but that's what return visits are for!! We did take a wine tour to the Yarra valley with the australian wine tour company which we both thought was great value for money. They take small groups of people to four different wineries and include lunch etc in the price. They weren't holding back with the wine either which seemed strange at first as we're not used to drinking at 11am but we soon got in the swing of things!
We spent the next day just walking round the city and visiting the museum and gaol, which were both great and well worth visiting. The city is full of wonderful buildings including my personal favourite, Flinders street station, which I must have taken about 20 different photographs of from various different angles!
On our last day we took a tour to Philip island to see the penguins. I've loved penguins since I was a kid but had never had the opportunity to see any 'in the wild' so was really excited about the opportunity. We booked the 'ultimate' penguin experience which involves sitting with a very small group and a guide on the beach with night vision goggles and watching the penguins stroll past you as they come up the beach to their nests. It was a wonderful experience and well worth the extra dollars for the guided tour.
As we were flying home from Sydney we spent two final days where we had started and took the opportunity to take the train up to the blue mountains. Our time there was quite limited but a very helpful girl in an information centre helped us to plan our visit around the time we could spend there. The views were great as it was a crystal clear day and the railway journey was hilarious!
Our last night in Sydney was spent in the opera bar watching the sun go down behind the harbour bridge and wondering if you would ever tire of the view!
In short, we had a fantastic time everywhere we went. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and appeared to be very laid back and happy. This made a very welcome change from the uk where everyone looks miserable most of the time!
Three weeks wasn't enough though because we didn't come close to seeing Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Uluru etc and felt there was still plenty to see in the places we did visit so we've already started saving for our next visit!
Thanks again for all the tips. We can't wait to get back there.