Some of Australia's best experiences can be found far from the tourist trail.
The geography of Australia is spectacularly diverse. And, with just 24 million people occupying an area the size of the United States, there is no shortage of semi-secret spots to explore. Most visitors base themselves in Sydney or Melbourne, but smaller hubs can be more rewarding: there are fewer tourists, and the towns are often in close proximity to the country's breathtaking tracts of wilderness. The following three centers—one in the mountains, one on a southerly island, and one in the monsoonal north—each strike the perfect balance between big-city convenience and small-town authenticity.
The Blue Mountains region, about an hour's drive west of Sydney, feels like many different places at once: There are high-altitude eucalyptus forests, undulating grassy hillsides, and gorges full of rainforest vegetation, often within a few miles of each other. The misty village of Leura is close to it all and—unlike the region's main settlement, Katoomba—is rarely frequented by day-trippers.
The main street is tiny but provides numerous points of interest, with an enchanting, comprehensive bookshop; several stores that stock locally made organic toiletries; and a Belgian chocolatier, Josophan's, that commands a devoted following of out-of-towners. Excellent restaurants and intimate cafes, from Mediterranean tapas joints to charming English tea houses, provide sustenance to suit most moods.
During the mild summers, many of Leura's grand old homes open their gardens to visitors, while in winter, log fires burn in hotel fireplaces, and snow occasionally falls. Some of the Blue Mountains' best views are within walking distance of Leura, and the region's other iconic sights, such as the subterranean Jenolan Caves, with their huge stalactites and stalagmites, and the majestic Three Sisters rock formation, are reachable by car.
STAY: Fairmont Resort, which overlooks the Jamieson Valley, has comfortable, unfussy rooms plus well-maintained pools and tennis courts.
DINE: The town's top restaurant, Silk's Brasserie, pairs Australian produce with French techniques.
TIP: Some businesses close on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The dense forests, brooding highlands, and rich folklore of Tasmania—an island state off Australia's southeast coast—have long attracted conservationists and off-the-grid types from the mainland. Recently, though, an increasing number of professionals and successful artists have started taking an interest in the place, drawn by its seclusion, character, and fiercely proud locals.
The state's capital city, Hobart, is a strikingly beautiful outpost of 200,000 that provides easy access to some of Tasmania's best natural attractions, including the rugged Mt. Wellington (a favorite among hikers) and the diverse Mount Field National Park, where moorland gives way to temperate rainforest and walking tracks crisscross the terrain. Hobart is also considered one of the most vibrant creative centers in Australia right now, thanks in large part to the recently opened, privately funded Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which specializes in controversial works by international artists of all disciplines.
Excellent dining (Hobart is on the water, so expect an emphasis on seafood), bohemian residential areas, and a predominance of independent retailers make the city a pleasure to explore. An evenly spaced series of annual events, such as the Mofo arts festival in January and Dark Mofo in June, means there's never a bad time to visit.
STAY: The Pavilions at MONA are large, apartment-style suites with luxe touches such as wine fridges and original paintings by Australian greats.
DINE: On the waterfront, Frank offers South American–influenced fare in a buzzy atmosphere.
TIP: Winters in Hobart can be significantly more challenging than on the mainland, so bring warm, waterproof clothing.
The Kimberley, in Australia's northwest, is considered the country's last frontier: a 160,000-square-mile region characterized by intense heat and an extreme monsoon season, deadly wildlife, and mind-boggling geological formations. The area is not an easy place to visit, with just a handful of towns, few paved roads, and a single airport capable of accepting commercial aircraft. But the rewards for venturing here are numerous: There is ancient Aboriginal art to be discovered, crocodiles and sharks to observe, and a sense of vastness that is unparalleled, even in a country as large as Australia.
The coastal settlement of Broome may be little more than a collection of low-slung buildings connected by roads with no traffic lights, but it's surprisingly comfortable, and serves as the gateway to the region beyond. In town, you'll find several upmarket resorts as well as more rustic accommodations, plus good restaurants that often host informal meetings for the region's power players (mining bosses, traditional landowners, and the like). Everyone who lives here does so because they love the Kimberley, so don't be surprised if you're inundated with advice about which light-plane trips or coastal expeditions to book.
STAY: Cable Beach Club has separate pools for children and adults, spacious rooms, and a spa by L'Occitane.
DINE: The Aarli is hugely popular, with Asian-influenced sharing plates and a young crowd.
TIP: Many operators shut down in wet season, but if you can arrange a trip toward the end of the monsoon period in March, you'll see the Kimberley at its most lush.
Five More Emerging Australian Destinations
NEWCASTLE This former industrial center an hour north of Sydney boasts postcard-ready beaches, impressive music and visual-art scenes, and a recently revitalized downtown packed with independent retailers.
CANBERRA The museum-heavy Australian capital was once considered dull, but recent openings (including the on-trend eatery Italian & Sons and the five-star eco-property Hotel Hotel) have caught the attention of sophisticated travelers.
MARGARET RIVER There are world-class wineries, dramatic surf beaches, vast cave systems, and upscale farmers' markets in this compact region south of Perth, but the place retains a tucked-away feel thanks in part to the unpretentious locals.
LAUNCESTON Tasmania's second city feels more like an English town, with stately Victorian buildings and charming green spaces, plus an increasingly upmarket dining scene that takes advantage of locally grown produce.
NORFOLK ISLAND This islet was once a penal colony, and plenty of landmarks remain, along with pristine beaches and a national park. Now that the territory—once self-governing—has come under mainland control, the number of visitors to the island may increase.