I Visited Australia As Soon As Its Borders Opened — Here's What It Was Like
I sat on the side of a small boat, peering out over the edge as the wind whipped my hair. The view of the Sydney Opera House grew larger and larger in front of me, its iconic sails rising out from the harbor as if it was waving hello. It was the perfect welcome to Australia.
I had arrived only hours before on the first Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Sydney welcoming American tourists to the country for the first time in nearly two years. And as I staved off jet lag with a sail along Sydney Harbour, I pinched myself that I had finally made it to this continent on the other side of the world.
Earlier that day, I had checked into the brand new Kimpton Margot Sydney in the heart of the city. The property, built in a heritage building and decorated with art deco-inspired pastels and soaring scagliola pillars in the lobby, was both elegant and comfortable at the same time. The hotel had only opened the week before and, much like the rest of the country, was more than ready for its first guests.
I spent the day touring the city, seeing the delicately carved terraces and cool shops in Paddington and taking photo after photo of the skyline. I headed to Bronte Beach for a coffee and a walk along the cliffs, strolling underneath stunning rock formations that towered over families swimming in the community pool, its turquoise water in perfect harmony with the picture-perfect surroundings.
It had been a whirlwind first day as Carly Rea, the founder of Splendour Tailored Tours, introduced me to the spirit of Sydney.
"I'm excited for the first time in two years," Rea told me as we hopped across the city. "Where the last two years we're taking bookings, we're rescheduling bookings, we're canceling, now I feel like we're not going to go backwards easily and we won't close those borders easily."
It was my first time in the country and I was told time and again how uncrowded everything was. But as I traveled from Victoria all the way to northern Queensland, it was clear that the soul of Australia hadn't gone anywhere. People welcomed my American accent — sometimes the first they'd heard in two years — and welcomed me.
What to Know Before You Go
Australia first opened to international travelers on Feb. 21 after being mostly closed for nearly two years with one of the strictest COVID-19-related border policies in the world. The decision came months after the country started allowing limited groups of people, including Australian citizens and their immediate family members, to enter, and after the country opened to tourists from certain countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.
To enter now, travelers must be fully vaccinated and show proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within three days of their flight or show proof of a negative rapid antigen test taken under medical supervision within 24 hours of their flight, according to the government. Travelers must also fill out a Digital Passenger Declaration and obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), which they can apply for online.
Different states have different rules when it comes to testing on arrival, according to the government. Some states, like New South Wales where Sydney is located and Victoria where Melbourne is located, require travelers to get tested with a rapid antigen test on the day of their arrival or within 24 hours. Others, like Western Australia, require travelers to take a rapid antigen test within 12 hours of arriving, while South Australia, for example, requires arriving international passengers to take a PCR test within 24 hours.
After taking my on-arrival test, I was able to travel freely between New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, seeing some of the most iconic attractions in Australia along the way.
Starting April 17, travelers will no longer need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
How I Got There
I arrived in Sydney just after 6 a.m. local time on the first Qantas flight from Los Angeles on Feb. 21. Before boarding the 15-hour flight, I had traveled from New York to LA with Qantas' Oneworld partner, American Airlines.
When I arrived in LA, I went straight to the Tom Bradley International Terminal without going through any extra security checks. On the Qantas flight, I settled into a premium economy seat, put the footrest all the way up, and used the extra-large pillow to sleep. Fifteen hours later, after a final coffee and a few minutes of rest, I caught my first glimpse of Sydney.
At the airport upon arrival, everything felt like business as usual as I stood in line for customs and showed my travel documents and passport once again to an agent. And then I was officially in Australia, one of the first Americans to say that in 23 months.
What It Was Like When I Arrived
Normal. That was the word that kept coming up as I began exploring Australia, from the cities and mountains to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest. For a country that had spent so long closed off to the majority of the world, it was amazing how normal everything felt.
In Sydney, I watched people swimming at the beach, feasted on impossibly crispy eggplant with an addictively sticky sauce at the new — and deservedly crowded — Southeast Asian spot MuMu, and cheered loudly during a high-energy performance of "Six the Musical" at the Sydney Opera House.
I snacked on warm scones and delicate finger sandwiches during afternoon tea at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, perched high above the Blue Mountains, and picked up a locally-designed wooden necklace and gifts for my nephews in the charmingly quaint town of Glenbrook.
In Melbourne, I found a vibrant city emerging from one of the longest lockdowns in the world. But its spirit was alive and well as I watched people stroll along the Southbank Promenade on the Yarra River, taking advantage of a sunny late summer Saturday afternoon.
Melbourne is known for its inventive food scene and it didn't disappoint. It didn't take long for Dan, my tour guide from Localing, to take me on an ambitious behind-the-scenes look — and taste — of the city. In Fitzroy, we stopped at Lune Croissanterie, a huge industrial space with an open kitchen where they bake traditional French croissants along with a rotating selection of imaginatively-flavored pastries (like the honeycomb and almond croissant I got that I couldn't stop eating). And in South Melbourne, we sat at a small outdoor table at ST. ALi where I ordered a trio of incredibly fluffy, baked-to-order madeleines served with a tart lemon curd.
We walked along row upon row of eclectic independent shops and impressively large art murals in Fitzroy before stopping to while away an hour or so at a corner bar, one of many that dot the neighborhood.
The next day, I headed to Federation Square where I settled into a picnic table at Big Esso, an indigenous-owned restaurant, and ordered up a feast including crispy cassava and Warrigal greens croquettes with saltbush and chimichurri aioli, and lemon aspen fries that were so good, I took two jars of the seasoning home with me.
Days later, I boarded a flight to northern Queensland and headed up to see a true bucket list destination: the Great Barrier Reef. I sat on a cushion on the outer deck of a Calypso Reef Cruises boat — a company that has been independently certified by Ecotourism Australia — and let the wind whip my hair as we made our way to the outer reef from Port Douglas. Climate change and coral bleaching have significantly damaged the reef over the years, so I was stunned and elated to find a vibrant and colorful underwater world full of iridescent purples and bright pinks, with multi-colored fish darting all around.
After a full day of snorkeling, I relaxed in the private pool of my villa at the nearby Silky Oaks Lodge, listening to the sounds of the Daintree Rainforest — the oldest tropical rainforest in the world — echo all around me. The hotel, which reopened in December 2021 after an extensive renovation, seamlessly blends together modern and high-end amenities with its natural surroundings from the soaring ceilings of the open-air lobby and the rushing sound of the river that can be heard over breakfast to the small marsupial pademelon I found hopping along a path on the way to my room.
The experience was relaxing and refreshing, and the perfect way to wind down my time in Australia before I headed back to Sydney and boarded another long flight home.
On my last day, I stood on a perch overlooking Sydney's harbor, the city's skyline a shadowy outline against the late afternoon haze. I took one last look, committing the outlines of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the boats dotting the water to memory, and I smiled, having finally made it to Australia and knowing I would be back.
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.