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The Blue Mountains refers to the mountain range itself as well as the surrounding area located just 90 minutes from Sydney, Australia’s largest city. The region is World Heritage listed as the Greater Blue Mountains Area and covers 1.03 million hectares comprising 8 distinct protected regions. It stretches north almost to the Hunter Valley wine region, south to the Southern Highlands and west beyond the ancient formations of the Jenolan Caves.
The National Park offers everything from a 5-minute stroll to a lookout over the Jamieson Valley and some of it’s most famous sandstone peaks to an epic week-long trek crossing multiple National Parks. In between are our favourites, day and part day hikes that cover the region.
But it’s not only hiking that you’ll come up here for; the foodie scene is great, there are excellent public and private gardens, the natural history and that it’s an ideal location to unplug from the city and indulge the senses.
Things to do in the Blue Mountains
1 Prince Henry Cliff Walk
Starting from the park above the Katoomba Falls the cliff top walkway runs for 7 km through to Leura. Allow 3 to 4 hours to do the walk one-way while enjoying the many points of interest and lookouts. You can also choose to break it up into sections and complete it as a return walk. There are fabulous views and interesting detours from the track the whole way along. This is the quintessential Blue Mountains and to really get a feel of what the area is all about I’d highly recommend spending time along here.
The track follows the contours of the ridgeline and although it does include some stairs and steps along the way it doesn’t head down into the valley making it a fairly level and easy walk.
2 Scenic World
Scenic World is a series of 3 scenic rides and a 2.4 km boardwalk down at the forest floor in the Katoomba section of the Blue Mountains. The rides include:
the steepest passenger train in the world that sets off down to the base station at an incline of 52°
the skyway with 360° views and a glass floor that glides across the Jamieson Valley 270 metres above the forest floor, and
a cableway that descends 545 metres down into the valley to the base station and boardwalk below.
You can easily spend a full day exploring the National Park and making good use of the Scenic World discovery pass. We share highlights of our day, itinerary and fabulous views in our post on discovering the best of Scenic World.
Scenic World is integrated into the national park, only the rides themselves are paid activities, you can freely move between the rides and the greater National Park throughout the day by scanning your wristband as you board each ride. For those that choose not to use the rides, there’s no private section of the forest, while the company maintains the boardwalk to protect the forest floor from the high number of visitors it can also be accessed via paths and stairs cut into the cliff.
3 Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens
Stunning in all seasons, the Blue Mountains botanic gardens have a range of walking trails that criss-cross the 97-hectare property. The views out to the hills from Mt Wilson to Wheeny Gap would have been a little better on a clear day but even with some low cloud, it was pretty easy to identify the peaks and valleys from the identification board on the viewing deck of the main building and we quite enjoyed the moody scene while we explored the gardens.
4 Jenolan Caves
With a natural history dating back 340-million years, the cave system at Jenolan is believed to be the oldest in the world. There are 11 caves that you can tour here, each with their own highlights whether that is their size, fossils, the underground river that carved out the hillside or the crystal formations.
The photos below are from the Temple of Baal and the Orient Cave tour, both of which we’d highly recommend but everyone we spoke to had enjoyed whichever caves they’d been into, some will suit individual interests butter than others but there is no right or wrong choice. You’ll also want to leave time to walk around the blue lake, the limestone gives it an incredibly vibrant hue and the waterfall and swimming hole is so pretty even if you don’t want to take a dip.
<< Read more about the Jenolan Caves >>
5 Leura Cascades
This short 30-minute walk from the picnic area is less than a kilometre loop back to the pretty falls behind the park. There’s a carpark, large shade trees and picnic tables here or you can enter via s short detour from the Prince Henry Clifftop walking track.
6 The Three Sisters Lookout
Visible from many sections of the cliff top walkway, the Scenic Ropeway, Scenic World building and other trails and lookouts in the region these soft sandstone peaks are the most familiar of the Blue Mountains landmarks. The three sisters have cultural significance to the local Aboriginal People and are each individually identified by name.
You aren’t able to climb here but there are stairs and a walkway across to the first sister and a small seating area to reflect on the stunning surroundings before the climb back up.
7 Katoomba Falls
The top sections of the Katoomba Falls aren’t large but they are pretty and haven’t run dry in recorded history. They weren’t a roaring torrent when we visited after 6-weeks of dry weather but still well worth seeing. They are very easy to access from the park and the clifftop walkway that passes right past them as it heads towards the Furber Steps.
8 Gordon Falls Lookout
Also accessed from the cliff top walk is the Gordon Falls Lookout. There’s a park and picnic area at the top and then it’s a short stroll down to the lookout. To see the 200-metre drop of the falls you’d want to be here in the afternoon light, in the morning you are looking directly into the sun.
This is a popular area for bird watching and there are several other walks you can detour off to from the park which include the Pool of Siloam, a pretty sandy pool beneath the waterfall surrounded by ferns, and Lyrebird Dell.
The largest and best-known town in the Blue Mountains is Katoomba. In 1879 a coal mine opened in the mountain near Orphan Rock and the cable car that was to become the Scenic World train line was installed. The town became an early tourist destination with visitors transported around the sites by horse and carriage, many of the original boarding houses from those times along the road to the three sisters are still in place and heritage listed.
Some of the best-known walkways and formations are located here and the infrastructure makes it a practical base for visitors and day-trippers. The village today houses a variety of restaurants and cafes, supermarkets, businesses, and galleries. On the weekends especially it can get very busy with day-trippers up from the city and an increasing population of its own.
Located only a few minutes drive from Katoomba is the township of Leura. The main street of this quaint and welcoming village is lined with small art deco buildings that house restaurants, deli’s, galleries and shops. We were drawn to the more relaxed feel here, while still having everything we needed so close by.
We choose The Fairmont in Leura as our base while in the Blue Mountains and found it ideal. The immediate area has its share of parks, lookouts and attractions and is also known for its excellent open gardens which are arguably at their best in the spring and autumn.
11 Pulpit Rock Lookout
There is a dirt road down to the carpark for the Pulpit Rock lookout but it’s well graded and easy enough to navigate with a normal car. This is probably my favourite lookout in the Blue Mountains, while it’s well maintained it’s not as well known as many others. We only saw one other couple walking back up the track as we were on our way down, other than that we had it to ourselves.
The track signage might make you smile a little on the way back out though, there’s quite a large sign at the start of the track that proclaims Pulpit Rock Lookout, 400 metres, 15 minutes one way, easy grade. The track is very do-able, don’t get me wrong, but as I grabbed my water bottle from the car when we returned I felt that they might have oversold the ease just a little. The Australian track grading system is generally going to make you feel like an overachiever, something marked as easy grade would normally be flat, potentially stroller friendly, perhaps even partially sealed or a boardwalk. This is an excellent track with safety rails, ladders for the steep parts and stairs cut into the cliff to avoid slipping in wet conditions, for the views it would be hard to beat and I’d highly recommend including it on your itinerary but if your knees are giving you issues you may find it more difficult than you expect.
12 Govetts Leap Lookout
Not far from Pulpit Rock, also in Blackheath is the Govetts Leap Lookout. This is a drive up option although many of the lookouts are joined by trails if you have the time to allocate walking between them.
The Bridal Veil Falls walk leaves from here, an easy enough walk down (about 15 minutes) but save some energy for those 500+ stairs on the way back up. There are also a couple of other slightly longer tracks from here including Braeside Walk which is an interesting shorter walk for seeing a variety of the interesting rock formations, waterfalls and fauna, it’s around 2.5 km and takes around 90-minutes to complete the return walk.
13 Street Art
Of the many things we anticipated in the Blue Mountains a fabulous collection of street art wasn’t on the list but it’s right here and if you enjoy outdoor art then keep your eyes open for these as you drive around. The biggest single collection was in Katoomba next to the Gingerbread House on Waratah Street but there were plenty more surprises to be found.
14 Sublime Point Lookout
The Sublime Point Lookout is in Leura and again just a short stroll from the carpark, a good option for catching the scenery in the early morning or late afternoon light. There are fabulous views of the Jamison Valley and cliffs but you are slightly outside the National Park itself here and you might see rock climbers taking on some challenging moves. Unless you are experienced this isn’t the place to try it out for the first time, the sandstone cliffs are very delicate and crumbly throughout the Blue Mountains with the potential for significant damage to you and the environment.
You do however get the opportunity to take a short bridge across the ravine to the lookout. From here there are views out to Katoomba, the three sisters and Mt Solitary. It’s a good option for a picnic and the trees near the carpark attract the black cockatoos and gang gangs at either end of the day.
On our first full day in the Blue Mountains, we headed to Scenic World to begin exploring the national park.
For us Scenic World offers 2 unique things. The first is accessibility and the second a unique perspective on the natural scenery. So while the rides are fun, for us it was more about:
getting to parts of the forest that we might not otherwise be able to in the available time, and
seeing some of the scenery and formations from an angle that we couldn’t any other way. Looking down from directly above, dangling over the valley at 270 metres is something pretty special.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t do many other walks in the area including the clifftop walk over the following days but I do have issues with my knees and hip that make a lot of stairs or extended steep slopes, particularly going downhill, feel unstable and after a while painful. The scenic railway and cableway meant I could skip a lot of that and enjoy the forest floor that would otherwise be daunting to reach via the Giant Stairway, a walkway of 998 stairs carved into the cliff.
The Skyway ride that crosses the valley from Scenic World to the clifftop walk on the other side is all about the views. This is the best place to see Orphan Rock, the full height of the Katoomba Falls that really can’t be appreciated from anywhere else (except perhaps a helicopter), another angle on the Three Sisters rock formation and the Jamieson Valley.
When planning your own day in Katoomba the Scenic World website has a range of itinerary options targeted at a variety of interests and fitness levels. Or you can just freestyle it as we did.
The Scenic Skyway
We were staying just up the road at the Fairmont Resort by Sofitel in Leura so arrived at Scenic World just on opening time. There is free carparking under the building so we grabbed a space in there, exchanged our tickets for a wrist band that acts as a ‘key’ to the ride gates throughout the day and headed directly to the Skyway.
We suspected the Skyway would be the most popular ride with the longest queue and figured it’s first crossing would be the least busy of the day. What we weren’t expecting was to get it entirely to ourselves for a private crossing which was amazing. We fully appreciated what a bonus that was on our way back across after walking part of the clifftop walk. By then it was packed with buses dropping off tours on that side too.
There’s a variety of views available depending on where you stand, a full 360° to choose from. Either look through the glass or through the bars towards the Three Sisters and down the Jamieson Valley, from the other side you are looking directly at Katoomba Falls which flow in all seasons. I’d also recommend trying the raised walkway in the middle. The floor is electro-glass and as you leave the station it looks opaque but shortly after, a switch is flipped and it becomes perfectly clear letting you look down between your feet at the forest below.
The Skyway provides the best views of Katoomba Falls and Orphan Rock and a unique perspective on the Three Sisters. We thoroughly enjoyed hiking the area too during our stay but these views were well worth including. Plus the experience of crossing the valley in Australia’s highest cable car was a new and fun experience.
While on the other side you can take a short walk to the left to see the top section of Katoomba Falls or right along the Price Henry cliff top walk toward the Three Sisters and the top of the Giant Stairway. We did both walks during our stay in the Blue Mountains but from the Skyway station, we walked along to the falls. It was still early in the day so we also got those pretty much to ourselves. While individual sections of the Katoomba Falls don’t give a complete picture of the full drop seen from the Skyway they are definitely worth checking out.
If you continue along this track you can go down the Furber Steps to the valley below and use the rides back up or go straight and you will come to Scenic World on this section via the Clifftop walk. Alternatively, head back to the Skyway for another look at that incredible scenery.
The Scenic Railway
Next up was a quick cuppa on the Terrace Cafe enjoying the views from the outdoor deck then onto the Scenic Railway. Although the railway carriage today looks very different from what it once did, it is where the Scenic World story began.
From 1878 until late in the 1930s the cliffs in Katoomba were mined for coal and there are still over 100 kms of tunnels running through the rock. The railway originally hauled coal up the mountain, today it’s a quick and easy way for passengers to get down to the forest floor.
The modern carriage has you fully enclosed as you head off to the lower station. I’d definitely recommend riding the train on the downward trip at least once. I wasn’t expecting such an abrupt drop off from the top station, or that a significant part of it goes through the rock of the mountain.
How intense the ride is can be adjusted to some degree by the passengers in your row. You select from laidback at a 44-degree angle, original at 52-degrees of the full impact with the cliffhanger setting at 64-degrees. On our first trip down we went with original but on the second trip, we got distracted by one of the friendly team offering to take our photo before the doors closed and forgot to check the settings so we got to try out the cliffhanger by default. Fortunately, we didn’t end up in the lap of the people in the row in front but it is an intense angle.
In case you do feel that the scenic railway might be too much of a wild ride spare a thought for those that did it in the past. This old train is on display just past the current lower station. I feel that this one could have genuinely classed as a thrill ride.
The Scenic World Boardwalk
From the lower Scenic Railway Station (or Cableway station) you can access the boardwalk and other tracks. Following the dirt track to the right will take you to a lower section of the Katoomba Falls, nearby is the base of the Furber Steps walking track, a 2.4 km return steep walking trail that you can follow to the upper section of the falls. Continue on past here, about a 15-minute walk all up and you will come to the Katoomba Falls crossing. This is the Great Round Walk track and will take you to the Giant Stairway.
The boardwalk was built by Scenic World to protect the forest floor and allow access to more of the area and relics of its mining history. It is still part of the Blue Mountains National Park and access to the boardwalk is not restricted. The cableway and railway just make it far more accessible to a wider group of visitors.
If you turn left from the station you will find some relics of the areas mining history and a 2.4 km looping boardwalk. The area is easy walking with a non-slip surface for wet weather. The boardwalk is partially wheelchair accessible but you will need to take the cableway in both directions rather than the train.
This was our first ever sighting of the Superb Lyrebird and there were quite a few of them here including some males in beautiful plumage and a female with a chick. The chick was as big as a fully grown bird but fluffy and every few bugs the mother bird found scratching in the undergrowth she would bring over and feed to him. (see video below). The young birds stay with the mother for only 6-7 weeks after hatching so he had to be quite young. If you are a birder then being down here in May – July would be perfect to see the male building his platform and performing his mating dance shaking those impressive tail feathers for the females in the area.
The Scenic Cableway
By this point, we were feeling it was time for lunch and headed back up to the main building via the Scenic Cableway. It can carry up to 84 passengers on the 545-metre trip up from the Jamieson Valley to the top of the escarpment. This is a very smooth ride and can accommodate wheelchairs.
You are free to come and go as much as you want during the day as long as you keep your ticket bracelet in place so you could head out for a picnic or back into town to eat but we decided on the Terrace Cafe with its views of the valley. We ordered the fish and chips and a coffee from the other side and sat outside on the deck. While the meal options were fairly typical of tourist destinations that deal with large groups it was well prepared, meals were cooked to order, not greasy and fairly priced for the location.
Although lunch was late there was still time in the afternoon so we made our way back down into the valley using a second trip on the train and back on the cableway. This time we took the branch to the right and followed the National Parks track along the Great Round Walk and past the Katoomba Falls crossing.
Scenic World Tickets
Like most visitors to Scenic World, we choose the Discovery Pass which gives unlimited use of all three rides for the calendar day. When you arrive you receive a non-removable wrist band that you scan each time you board. We felt the price point for unlimited rides is good value. It meant we could go up and down to the valley a couple of times during the day when it suited us and then take another return crossing on the Skyway later in the afternoon with different light.
Where it might feel more pricey is if you want to take a single ride, for example, if you hike down into the valley via the Giant Staircase and then decide you don’t want to climb back up at the end of the day. However, it’s all about convenience, accessibility and personal choice. For me, I felt my knee wouldn’t handle the climb up and down into the valley to the forest floor given we had multiple days of walking planned. Many of the other walks did have plenty of stairs too but they were clifftop which is a different experience and ecosystem so it was something we didn’t want to miss out on.
It’s useful to know that weekday tickets are at a slight discount to weekend tickets so if you have the flexibility in your schedule you will have fewer crowds on a weekday and you can save a bit of cash.
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Have a bit more time in the Blue Mountains? These articles might be useful.
Our comprehensive guide to the Blue Mountains and the many things to do here
The Jenolan Caves were so much more than we had expected and are now one of our highly recommended experiences in Australia.
Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens are a great drive out and offer some stunning views of their own. A great spot for nature enthusiasts and bird watchers.
Headed to the city too? Our Sydney travel guide is also crammed full of fun ideas and tips for first-time visitors
Jenolan Caves tours explore 340 million-year-old caves, believed to be the oldest open caves in the world. These are our top tips for planning your visit and getting the most from your time above and below ground.
The concept of exploring deep into the centre of a mountain has fascinated me since well before Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series made it look seriously cool back in 2001. This trip to the Jenolan Caves, the best known of Australia’s 20 odd cave systems, has literally been on my life list for decades.
If you want to see caves then these have to be among the best. They are one of the eight protected areas that make up the World Heritage Listed Greater Blue Mountains Area and clay within the caves has been scientifically dated back 340 million years making it the oldest known cave system in the world.
The tours we joined on this adventure took us into some dramatic and beautiful caves to appreciate natures architecture and art. There are many options to choose from that explore hidden chambers and tunnels highlighting the many types of crystal growth, fossils and the river network that carved out the ancient cave system. For the more adventurous you may choose the Elder cave, put on a headlamp and journey underground where you’ll climb, squeeze and crawl through the narrow gaps in an introduction to caving.
How were the Jenolan Caves formed
The caves at Jenolan are formed from limestone, layers of coral and shell deposited there 450 million years ago when this was coastal ‘Australia’ and still beneath the sea. As the tectonic plates moved they were flipped up and over, rising into mountains, inverting the layers of fossils and pushing the coast back 100 of kilometres to the east. The groundwater absorbed carbon dioxide from the air making it acidic and as that is pushed up against the limestone rock over thousands of years it gradually erodes it out. As one of our guides simplified it, the formation of a cave involves two rocks, one stays and one goes.
We arrived at the caves early, about 20 minutes before opening time and spent a bit of time watching a lyrebird scratching up a storm at the edge of the carpark before heading down to find the booking office and taking a look around. There’s a board that shows the various cave tours available with a difficulty level based mostly on the number of steps inside the cave. Unless you have a lot of difficulty with steps, that number won’t matter too much as you’ll stop often to see the cave so you aren’t doing them all in one go. Another board shows the tours and times they are running that day. If a tour disappears from the board don’t worry, that just means it’s fully booked, not that it’s no longer running.
Which Jenolan cave tours to choose
The Jenolan Cave complex follows the underground river and is made up of hundreds of entrances and tunnels throughout the mountain and underground. The area that’s open to tourists comprises eleven stunning caves that are lit and open to explore on scheduled tours throughout the day. These include:
The Grand Arch – coming in from Sydney you’ll actually drive through the arch, it’s a massive cave and the meeting point for some of the cave tours.
Lucas Cave – this one has several large chambers, the largest is 50 metres high with fantastic acoustics in the Cathedral Chamber. The broken column formation in the Exhibition Chamber is also a highlight.
Imperial Cave – One of the easiest caves for visitors with reduced mobility or fitness and with great fossil deposits including the bones of Tasmanian Devils.
Chiefly Cave – In 1880 this was the first cave in the world to be lit by electric lights and for nostalgia two of the chambers are still lit with coloured lights.
Temple of Baal – this wet cave is still growing and evolving, there are two main chambers and they are spectacular. The Angels Wing shawl formation is 9 metres tall and one of the best examples in the world.
Orient Cave – Not discovered until 1904 this cave has the most intricate and complex formations. It’s hard to pick one ‘must see’ from the list as they are each unique and fascinating but this would be mine.
River Cave – this one houses some of the most famous features, including the Minaret, the Grand Column and the Queen’s Canopy, you’ll also see part of the underground River Styx that is responsible for the cave network on this tour.
The Pool of Cerberus – In this lower branch of the River Cave, you’ll see unusual aragonite formations, the Bath of Venus and a section of the river that forms the Pool of Cerberus.
Ribbon Cave – Named for its excellent display of ‘ribbon’ helictites along the 60-metre cave.
Diamond Cave – this is a branch of the Imperial Cave and is lined with white crystal formations tinted with pink. The highlight is the ‘Gem of the West’ a crystal formation comprising helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, shawls and wave crystal. You can also access a section of the underground river on this tour via a spiral staircase.
Nettle Cave – is located between the Grand Arch and the Devils’ Coach House. The cave is open and free to access, you can make your way up here without a guide.
Jubilee Cave – Discovered in 1893 it is the longest cave and a small group tour but as it’s a distance away from the others it’s a longer tour.
Elder Cave – Was the first cave in Jenolan opened to tourists after it was discovered in 1848. It’s trickier to access than the others and is used for adventure caving. The Plughole tour will take you in here. You’ll need a headlamp (provided), no fear of enclosed spaces and a good level of fitness for this tour.
The main caves at Jenolan must be visited as part of a guided tour, this ensures the safety of visitors and prevents damage to the cave interiors. Part of the protocol that protects the fragile natural heritage is the airlock doors and low emission lighting that is only left on for the minimum time while the tours are in progress.
There is however a cave tour at Jenolan you can do on your own and it’s free to access, it’s the Devil’s Coach House and Nettle Cave. The Devils Coach House is the largest chamber at Jenolan and when the river runs in flood it passes through the cave. The Nettle Cave is the upper level and is open to air movement unlike most of the other caves in the complex. It’s a dry cave making the formations appear quite different to others but still very interesting.
We found it really hard to decide which cave tours to book out of the extensive choice available. I thought I had made my choice well before we left Brisbane but talking to the staff on the ticket desk when we arrived I still ended up making a last minute change. On the positive side from every person we spoke to during the day and they came from a variety of fitness levels, age groups and interests, everyone had loved the caves they’d seen so it would be difficult to make a wrong choice.
The tour times run back to back but you really can’t book consecutive tours as you need to get from one endpoint to the next start point and for obvious reasons they can’t wait for you. We decided to do one tour in the morning and another in the afternoon with lunch and fitting in some of the walking tracks and free caves into any free time we had. We knew as soon as we walked into the first cave that we would be coming back to do some more. We both love nature and are fascinated by natural history and this place had us both in our element.
In hindsight, you could fit in a third cave if you have the full day here perhaps even 4 if you were staying overnight and not wanting to drive out before dark but we also enjoyed having enough time to take it all in and also looking around the blue lake and waterfall. I’d highly recommend staying overnight if you can possibly fit it in.
We settled on the Temple of Baal and Orient Cave tours and then exploring the rest of the complex in the available time between and after.
The Temple of Baal Cave
The first cave we entered on the 9.30am tour was the Temple of Baal. One of the advantages of getting there early was that there were only 10 of us on the tour rather than the max group of 25.
Originally this cave was discovered and accessed off the Grand Arch and River Cave but in the 1950s a man-made tunnel was cut above Jenolan House to make for easier access. The 120-metre long corridor is called the Binoomea Cut which in the local Aboriginal dialect means ‘dark place in the mountain’ which is pretty descriptive of the path they blasted through solid rock. It was opened in 1954 providing access through the corridor with heavy airlock doors at either end to protect the temperature and moisture levels within the cave.
The cave is not a temple or consecrated space but gets its name from the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in the Old Testament. The Temple of Bel (also known as Baal) was one of the best preserved ancient temples in what is now Syria but it was destroyed by Islamic State militants in August 2015.
Once inside the cave, the lights are turned on and you can appreciate the size of the first chamber and beauty of the crystal structures before heading down the spiral staircase known as the dragon’s throat. This is one of the easier caves with 288 stairs to climb down and back up. The caves are all giant caverns inside a mountain so some step and ladder climbing can’t be avoided if you want to see them but you won’t need more than average fitness and mobility to be comfortable in the Temple of Baal.
The Temple of Baal is a wet cave, which simply means it still has a natural water flow seeping through it and therefore it is still developing, evolving and growing. This was fascinating to see and our guide pointed out a few points where you could see both flowstone and tiny crystal structures starting to form.
Flowstone is one of the fastest growing crystalline structures and you can see in the 60-year-old Binoomea cut that a significant patch has already begun to form where water flows through the rock that was exposed during the tunnelling process and now drips down the wall.
Inside the cave, high up in the second chamber, you see a natural structure that represents Baal who the cave is named for. If you look closely you can see the features of his face in the formation. Baal was an ancient deity responsible for fertility, both the ability of the earth to produce crops and of the growth of its population. In this chamber, the lights play over the crystal and rock features and the guide sets chamber music playing which is both eerie and magical in the space.
The most recognised feature of this cave is the angel’s wing shawl formation, at 9 metres tall this is one of the largest cave shawls in the world and is truly stunning. The photos below see it from 2 different angles.
The Orient Cave
The Orient Cave is also entered through the Binoomea Cut tunnel. Our group on this afternoon tour was larger, there were 20 of us and they can take up to 25 people in a group. As you enter the cave there are dim lights on, once everyone is settled and comfortable you are asked to turn off watch faces, phones, cameras or anything else that emits a light source and the cave lighting is turned off. You are deep inside the mountain which is pitch dark of course, probably the darkest you have ever experienced, you literally can’t see your hand an inch in front of your face. This is incredible as of course when this cave was first discovered and explored it was by candlelight or maybe a lantern, how they ever appreciated the wonder that was inside and moved through them without damaging the fragile structures is impressive in itself.
The Orient Cave has 358 steps and is classed as an easy cave, suited to most visitors. In some parts, you are moving through narrower spaces that are a bit more restricted but you comfortably walk the whole way, there is no climbing or squeezing through gaps. We walked wearing our cameras on cross-body straps and camera packs with no problems so it’s not a tight space but Drew did note that just once or twice his shoulders touched the rock walls on either side so I guess they were a bit narrower up higher on the wall, not a problem at my height.
The lighting level is optimal to observe with the eye and to preserve the fragile structures but photography is difficult. Normally in the low light, you’d use a tripod but that is too risky in the space. These images give an idea of the intricate formations inside of the cave but honestly, it is so much more beautiful to see it in person.
The Blue Lake and River Walk
One of the beautiful and popular walks from the Jenolan Caves is the Jenolan River Walk. Head through the Grand Arch and veer to the right around the lake. This is an easy 2.1 km circuit through the bush, past lakes and waterfalls and over a swing bridge.
Along the way keep watch for the platypus that live in the lake, wallabies came down the hillside beside us, water dragons and lizards were basking in the sun, Superb Lyrebirds scratched away looking for food and this is considered generally a good bird watching track for Bellbirds with their distinctive call and Rock Warblers.
The stunning blue-green tones of the Blue Lake come from the limestone particles dissolved in the water. It’s very clean and clear making it the perfect spot to watch for platypus especially in the spring when their natural mating season behaviour makes them easier to spot.
Find out why this city that’s the perfect playground for the adults is also an ideal family holiday destination with children and teens. We share the best things to do with kids in Tokyo alongside some tips for making sure everyone has a fantastic holiday.
Japan is a fun, energetic and always surprising. Tucked away between the neon lights you’ll find tiny shrines that are an oasis of calm. Melding with the never-ending surge of dark suits emerging from the subways stations are pops of pink hair and disruptive fashion. Alongside Michelin starred restaurants are small Mom and Pop eateries serving dishes of exquisite depth and flavour.
Perhaps most unexpectedly in a city that seems to cater so exclusively to the grown-ups, is the plethora of places, sights and activities to keep the kids entertained and engaged.
Why Tokyo is such a great city for family travel
Travel is about different things to different people. It’s about getting away from everyday stresses, relaxing and forgetting the daily grind. It’s about trying out new things, meeting new people and experiencing another culture. Travelling with others is also an opportunity to create shared memories, have fun and discover together, spend quality time with the family and compromise to find the right balance to make it an incredible experience for everyone.
For most readers, a visit to Japan is going to challenge the status quo. The language is different, the currency is different, sights, sounds, the history, culture and the contradictions of a city like Tokyo are going to provide plenty of fascinating family conversation and learning opportunities.
One of the things that we feel makes Tokyo, and Japan overall, a great place to travel with kids is that it’s very safe. As safe or even safer than home. While all the usual precautions should be observed it’s a great first introduction for children and teenagers to how wonderful and diverse our world really is. If you’re heading off early in the morning you’ll often see very young Japanese children, impeccably dressed and presented, carrying their huge school packs and catching trains all by themselves across the city. We’ve had many reminders over the years of how safe the city is, from Japan Rail retrieving a forgotten camera from a train several stops later and delivering it to a couple staying in our hotel to a young female work colleague thinking nothing of catching the subway and trains some distance home late at night after meeting up with us for dinner and drinks.
Things to do in Tokyo with kids
Exploring the natural beauty, culture, history and sights of Japan as a family is a fabulous experience. In this post, we are focusing on 15 specific destinations in Tokyo that will appeal especially to the kids but be great fun for the whole family.
1 The colours, tastes and sounds of Harajuku
From the rainbow coloured fairyfloss and crepes to the stores and cafes filled with an unbelievable array or cute and quirky, a walk through Harajuku’s Takeshita Street is a must, especially with teens and tweens.
The spacious and leafy Yoyogi park is another must with its constant free entertainment. After many times here I don’t think it’s possible to visit without something taking you by surprise, whether it’s rabbits out for a walk in their Sunday best, a dozen Elvis lookalikes dancing up a storm, a dog skateboarding past or a hundred other things I just haven’t seen before. There are buskers, jugglers and j-pop, Harajuku street fashion is an art form and you’ll usually see a few Lolita and Goths dressed up around the overpass although it’s more prevalent on a Sunday afternoon with work or school taking priority during the week.
Disneyland is an obvious choice for families with younger children who will love the familiar characters, rides and shows. Japan Disney was the first to open outside the USA and is a super popular destination with kids in Tokyo.
Tips for your visit:
The FastPass can be a good choice but exchange it as early in the day as possible for maximum choice of session times
Time your visit on a weekday and outside of local holidays if possible, it will help ensure fewer crowds
Plan your route in advance with a park map, there’s a lot to see and do
If buying food in the park look out for options available in different areas, they all have signature items and many are really good
Talking of rides ‘it’s a small world’ has recently reopened after big renovations. I still remember so clearly the first time I took this ride as a 10-year-old in Anaheim and the re-opened ride in Tokyo is getting great reviews, this is one not to be missed.
The Disney resort is easy to access by public transport and Tobu Levant, a Tokyo hotel I stayed at recently in Kinshicho had a free shuttle so it’s worth checking with your hotel concierge to make sure you aren’t missing out on anything.
DisneySea is a unique Disney Park located just out of Tokyo. Within its 176 acres, there are 7 ‘ports’ each featuring nautical stories and legends of the sea. Make sure you have the full day available to enjoy it and pace yourself to continue on through to the night show which is a feature you should not miss.
The rides at DisneySea are loved not only by children and teens but adults too so if you have a FastPass use it as early in the day as possible. Journey to the Centre of the Earth and the Indiana Jones Adventure are the most popular and longest lines and if travelling with the family you probably won’t want to make use of the single rider queues which are another way of speeding your way through the queues.
For the young, young at heart and lovers of electronics and manga, a visit to Akihabara is a must. Known by many as ‘Electric Town’ this flashy and colourful part of the city is worth a visit both by day and night. Welcome to the world of neon, Otaku culture and electronics shopping.
It’s a fun part of the city to wander around. This is where you’ll find most of the Maid Cafes, while they aren’t designed for children it’s not a ‘red light’ district and walking past the maids in costume and the cafes isn’t likely to result in any questions from the younger kids that you don’t want to answer. Most of the cafes would actually allow children in, it’s just not designed with kids in mind.
Photo by Cowardiion via Depositphotos.com
5 Pokemon Centre
There are three Pokemon Centres in Tokyo itself and they each have their own appeal. Nearby prefectures of Yokohama and Chiba also have a store but they will be less convenient for most visitors to the city.
This escalator below is on the way to the Pokemon store in Ikebukuro and is known as the Pokemon Centre Mega Tokyo and it really is MEGA. It’s upstairs in the Sunshine City shopping centre and pretty much has everything “Pokemon” you can imagine. I like Ikebukuro, it’s a fun part of town to visit with lots of interesting food options and shopping, the Pokemon store is open till around 8 pm along with many of the other stores in the centre so it can be a good option to head out there for dinner and a wander around.
In 2018 the Pokemon Centre Tokyo DX (or deluxe) opened in Nihonbashi complete with a cafe. It’s the biggest Pokemon store so far and includes some interesting history and an interactive display. Its selection is also huge, as big as the Mega Centre.
The third store is at Skytree Town. In addition to the Skytree viewing tower and a fabulous array of restaurants, there’s a food floor that left me without words, a large shopping centre with all the usual things and downstairs there is a section that’s perfect for your souvenir shopping which includes the Pokemon store. It’s a smaller version than the others but still has a great variety. There’s a lot to do in the Asakusa area of Tokyo so this one is really easy to add into a day’s exploring or combine it with trying out a restaurant upstairs for dinner.
6 Ghibli Museum
The museum isn’t large but it’s beautifully presented with so much Ghibli packed into the available space. From the moment it comes into sight you are transported to the world of anime and it’s not surprising this is one of the most popular attractions for families in Tokyo.
The museum exhibit labels and films are entirely in Japanese but that won’t matter to fans of Ghibli, it’s an experience that transcends language barriers and Totoro lovers will be in their element.
There is a cafe on site but you’re welcome to bring your own snacks and eat on the patio or there is a nice park nearby.
To avoid disappointment when planning your visit to Ghibli you need to book well in advance to get tickets for the day you want. Visitor numbers are limited for each day and there are no same-day tickets available at the entrance so you do need to book in ahead. Sales are for a specific date and ticket sales open up 3 months in advance so we highly recommend booking online well before you leave home to avoid disappointment.
Photo by Cowardiion | Depositphoto
7 TeamLabs Borderless
Located in Odaiba this digital art exhibition is open daily from 10 am until 9 pm. It’s an interactive immersive exhibit featuring multiple rooms, themes and light effects. It’s not Japanese specifically but it is unique and not something I’ve come across elsewhere on this sort of scale. Once inside there is no one path to follow, it’s like a free-form maze to explore and you will want 2-4 hours to do it justice.
To get there at its least crowded either early or late in the day is best and if you can, select a weekday over a weekend or holiday. It’s also suggested to get tickets in advance as same-day tickets are often not available. Even with tickets you should anticipate some queue to get inside.
Odaiba is a great family day out due to the variety of things to do over here. The family fun starts on the Yurikamome train as you cross the Rainbow bridge with views of the harbour and futuristic Odaiba beyond.
What is now known as the playground of Odaiba was once a series of forts built to protect Tokyo from the sea. Since then they have been joined together to reclaim land for the entertainment precinct that is housed here today.
Once you arrive in Odaiba there are plenty of things of interest for everyone, explore the waterfront, visit the city beach and parks, go shopping, interact with robots at the science museum, the Mori Digital Art Museum and the Joypolis games centre. Fans of anime will want to keep an eye open for the giant Gundam statue while other’s will be drawn to the scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. There’s also a viewing deck in the distinctive Fuji TV building.
For a reasonably priced lunch or dinner the 5th floor of Aquacity houses a floor of ramen vendors featuring styles from all across Japan. The buttery Sapporo style with perfectly tender chāshū is my choice. If you are undecided and don’t have time to visit every prefecture this could help you target your foodie cravings. There’s also a good view of the Rainbow Bridge from the deck here.
Photo by Leungchopan | Depositphoto
9 Robot Restaurant
A riot of colour, lights and crazy fun. Yes this is definitely one for the tourists and due to that it’s one of the few attractions in Tokyo catering to English speakers but that doesn’t stop it being fab and fun. There are daytime sessions if you want to avoid little ones being overly stimulated too close to bedtime and they provide noise-cancelling earphones for children to wear if they are too overwhelmed but most don’t seem to need or want them.
It’s crazy and silly, there are a lot of flashing lights sounds and dancing, dancing, dancing. A great choice for lovers of anime and all age groups.
Japan has a wonderful diversity of traditional food and cooking styles but it’s also known for its kawaii (cute) food. One of the best places for that is the Harajuku and Shibuya area. From cones of multi-coloured fairy floss that are bigger than your head to loaded crepes, desserts that are individual works of art and steaming cups of matcha with a marshmallow flower blooming dramatically on top. You can find so much fun food in Harajuku and surrounding streets.
While you can explore on your own trying out the treats you spot that take your fancy, the Kawaii food tour with Arigato Japan one of the most popular with families for good reason. Not only will you try out many different treats you’ll be immersed in the area with a knowledgable English speaking guide who can fill in the gaps and help you understand the culture and history as well as the food.
If instead, you are ready to sit down and let the pretty food and show come to you then the Kawaii Monster Cafe is a family favourite also in Harajuku.
Looking to spend some time in nature and discover the UNESCO World Heritage Gondwana Rainforests of Australia? Discover the Purling Brook Falls track and the extension down to Warringa Pool plus some other stunning must-visit spots nearby.
Summer is in full swing and one of the best ways to beat the heat is to head into the National Parks. It’s a few degrees cooler up in the mountains than it is in the city or at the beach. There’s also a bit of respite from the beating sun under the forest canopy and some fabulous pools for a cooling dip.
Here in Queensland on the Gold Coast, we are blessed with 3 incredible hinterland national parks that are all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Gondwana Rainforest of Australia. These parks are Tamborine, Lamington and Springbrook.
In mid-January, the hight of summer here in Australia, we decided to head back up to the Purling Brook Falls and Warringa Pool tracks in the Springbrook National Park.
How to get to the Purling Brook Track
Getting to the Springbrook National Park will take you around 1.5 hours from Brisbane or just under an hours drive from the Gold Coast beaches.
Once inside the Springbrook National Park there are two main routes, one continues up to the Natural Bridge and the other heads out to Purling Brook Falls, Twin Falls and the best of all Lookout.
Walking the Purling Brook Falls Track
Our pick for the day was the Purling Brook Falls track. This is a 4 km loop starting from the Gwongorella Picnic Area. You can walk the loop in either direction you choose but we took the recommended clockwise route. Going around this way you are still going to have to walk back up to the top (obviously) but it means going down the majority of the stairs on the way to the base and back up using the winding path sections. There are some stairs coming back up but the slope is more gentle.
The trail is well formed and signposted, there are a few parts where you’ll need to step over tree roots but there is no climbing or difficult stretches. After heavy rains, the track can get a bit slippery and muddy but the bonus of this weather is that the falls are even more spectacular.
The trail passes by the top lookout for your first view of the drama of these 109-metre horsetail falls before descending into the valley below. The first part of the track is through a forest of mountain ash and eucalyptus. As you move down through the lower levels you’ll come to more typical rainforest palms, cycads and vine forest.
After 2 km you come to the base of Purling Brook Falls, there are several vantage points here to see it from and it is quite an impressive wall of water most of the time. If it’s been very dry it can be a bit less dramatic. The pool and vegetation surrounding it is home to some protected wildlife including native frogs and the spiny blue crayfish. For the sake of the fragile ecosystem they ask that you don’t climb down and swim here but if the sight of those icy cold falls has you tempted there’s a sidetrack that takes you to Warringa Pool, an equally appealing alternative.
This is one of the best swimming holes in the Springbrook National Park and easy to get to. Continue on the left path as you come to Purling Brook falls, it’s about another kilometre down to the falls and you walk back the same way to this point then continue along the Purling Brook loop back to the carpark. A 6 km walk in total.
On this section of the track, you’ll pass by the top of Tanninaba Falls before descending further through the massive granite boulders and palms to the pool.
The Warringa Pool is ideal for a dip to freshen up. Like any mountain swimming hole that’s fed by a waterfall it’s going to be cold at any time of year but cooling down is the point of it right. If you don’t feel like diving right in there are areas where you can sit with your feet in the water or wade in the shallows.
In addition to the main hole, there are a series of pools and small cascades that you’ll come to if you rock-hop your way a little bit further back upstream. These quieter spots are my favourites.
Things you need to know about Warringa Pool
The toilets and changing area are up by the carpark so you’ll want to wear your swimmers under your clothes on the way down
Take care on the rocks, they can be slippery and the only way out is 3 km back up the hill you just came down
The sitting space is a bit limited so if there are a few others already there you can rock hop a little further back upstream and find another rock shelf to spread out on.
Some types of leeches live in freshwater pools, we didn’t have any issue ourselves but others have mentioned encountering the little worms when swimming here.
Gwongorella Picnic Area
The car parking and facilities at the Purling Brook Falls trailhead are the Gwongorella Picnic Area. This area has had a fairly recent renovation so it’s all looking very well kept but some of the smaller plants are still getting established. The toilets here are composting as you’ll normally find in the National Parks but they are kept clean. There’s space to change if you’re planning to take a dip in the pool down the track and outdoor taps (not for drinking water) if you need to wash off or clean your boots in wet weather.
The barbeques are new and were kept clean when we were here. There are picnic tables positioned both under the covered area and also set in under the shade of the trees. We have our own fave picnic spot not far away that I’ll come to shortly but this is a great facility. There’s parking for around 20 cars and if you’re there early you can score one in the shade of the trees that’s nice and close for carrying your picnic gear in but there’s also street parking that is regularly in use on a busy day.
The Best of All Lookout
When you’ve finished the walk here and perhaps stopped for a picnic or something from the cafe just up the road there is more to see in this area if you have the time. Continue on another 7 km following the marked turnoff ona the right to the Best of All Lookout.
After the great views at Purling Brook and other places in Springbrook National Park that sounds like a massive oversell but it’s a short 600-metre return walk from the carpark and you won’t regret it. It’s only a 7 km drive from Purling Brook Falls making it an easy addition to your day in the mountains.
The Canyon Lookout
Another 4.5 km down the road there is a short detour off to the Canyon Lookout. This is a lookout rather than a trail head and only a few steps from the car but you can see Twin Falls and Rainbow Falls from here. You can also see all the way out to the coast.
The enormous canyon in front of you is part of the Scenic Rim as all of this area is. It’s the remnants of an ancient shield volcano that formed 26 million years ago, the landscape continues to evolve every year due to the extremes of weather, erosion and rock slides. It’s only a short stop but if you are continuing on up the road to more of the walks and picnic areas it’s another perspective on the area.
Twin Falls Circuit
Another 750 meters along this road and you’ll come to the car parking area for the Twin Falls track. I’ve got all the details and more photos for this walk covered in the linked article but wanted to mention it here too as it’s so close. For many, this would make a great combination doing one of the tracks in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
Twin Falls circuit is a 4 km loop, there are 4 waterfalls along the way, an fairly easy grade 3 walking track, and that great swimming hole too. At the top, there is car parking, toilets and a couple of picnic tables.
Goomoolahra Falls and Picnic Area
Drive another 1.5 km and you’ll come to the end of Springbrook Road at the Goomoolahra falls and picnic area. This is my favourite lunch stop, there are no shops or cafes so you need to be self contained but there are great tables and BBQ facilities under the shade of the trees. The shallow water flows alongside the picnic spots to the top of the falls creating a cool and peaceful environment.
We like to settle in for a while after our walks to just enjoy being in nature. On this trip, we had yellow robins flitting around above our head and a kookaburra who positioned himself next to us to keep an eye on things. I like to pack up a picnic of cold meats, crackers, cheese and pickles or this time I found these picnic pies on Pinterest so cooked those the night before to pack into the cooler.
The OZTRAIL loungers were a pre-Christmas addition, they’re super comfortable and pretty much lie flat for an afternoon siesta or to relax with the kindle after lunch. We’ve also just added this Wacaco Nanopresso coffee press to our kit and I’m absolutely loving being able to make a great quality espresso wherever we are, especially in remote and stunning locations like this.
We like to head up into the National Park early. Staying locally is ideal but if not, an early wakeup will ensure you get a shady carpark at you chosen trailhead and enjoy the rainforest at it’s absolute best without the crowds.
Having said that a night or two within the world heritage listed Gondwana Rainforest is highly recommended. If you haven’t done it before the night sky is incredible, the silence and being totally immersed in nature as the sun goes down is a very special experience. These are a few options really good options that offer all the comforts you might want.
The Sanctuary is a self-contained heritage one bedroom cottage with a high end fit out. It’s located within the National Park and includes a continental breakfast to enjoy on your private balcony. There’s a functional kitchenette meaning you can prepare your own meals and you also have the option of having your evening meal served onsite and enjoying one of the local cafes during the day. The Sanctuary take single night bookings which makes it easy to incorporate into your itinerary or as a romantic city escape, with just the one chalet on the property peace and privacy are guaranteed.
The Mouses House Rainforest Retreat describe their romantic rainforest chalets as ‘rustic-chic’ while their guests describe them as excellent, 5/5 and bucket list. There are 14 chalets nestled into the native bush, a great spot for a romantic retreat in a natural setting. The chalets have spa baths, wood burning fireplaces and private outdoor hot tubs.
Be prepared for your National Park visit
Select the right track
Hiking is a physical activity, these are natural spaces and while safety precautions are in place you need to be aware of your own capabilities and select a trail that suits you and your travel companions. Fortunately, there really are options in the Springbrook National Park to suit everyone.
Walking tracks in Australia are graded, the Purling Brook Falls and Warringa Pool track are graded 3 which means they are good walking quality, suited to anyone of moderate fitness and can be used in most weather conditions. We have an article that explains the Australian walking track grading system in more detail if you want to take a look.
The Australian wildlife
Springbrook national park is the rainforest home to a wide variety of different wildlife. Many of them are protected, some are endangered and their environment is fragile. Be aware of the wildlife around you for your own safety and theirs, don’t try to touch or pick them up and stay on the tracks.
Australia has a bad wrap for scary animals but we have cute and fascinating ones too. Yes there are snakes in the national park, yes some of them are highly toxic but if you stay on the paths and watch where you walk they are highly unlikely to be a threat to you. I have come across a red belly black snake sunning itself across a hiking path and spotted other snakes near the trails over the years so keep your eyes open but don’t stress about it, they are there, you are there, it’s all good.
Water dragon in Springbrook National Park
Two tiny critters that are common out here because they like humidity and moisture are ticks and leeches. The common bush tick is also called the paralysis tick, it can burrow into the skin and needs to be removed with care as soon as possible. Most adults won’t react beyond localised irritation but if you do have symptoms or believe you haven’t removed it fully get medical attention. Leeches are considered more gross than dangerous but a few people will develop an allergy to them after multiple bites. The best prevention against both ticks and leeches is to spray legs, socks and shoes with insect repellant as they are mostly found in the damp leaf litter on the path. It is also more likely to encounter them walking during or after heavy rain. I like to give myself a good spray with repellant on all exposed skin anyway because mosquitos are a health risk all around the world and I seem to be a magnet for them.
On a more positive note keep your eyes open for wallabies and the smaller related pademelons that are adorable wild icons of Australia. There are also possums, gliders, bandicoots, quoll, echidna and if you are very lucky platypus to be seen within Springbrook National Park and a vast diversity of bird life.
It’s hard to go wrong with a day (or more) in Springbrook National Park, or at any of the others located on the Gold Coast and around South East Queensland.
There’s as much or as little to do as you choose and as we’ve shown here it’s so easy once your here to put together a combination of hikes, picnic spots, lookouts and time to relax in nature.
Interested in easy hikes on the Gold Coast? Here are some other articles you may enjoy
Looking for fun things to do in Auckland? We have you covered with the best places to eat, play and stay in New Zealand’s largest city and our old hometown.
Although we now call Australia home we’ve both lived in Auckland for many years before that. It’s New Zealand’s largest city, it’s multicultural, diverse and idyllically situated on a narrow isthmus of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.
With all that sea around it’s not surprising it also has a wide variety of beaches, bays and islands to spend time on. From black sand to white, challenging surf to sheltered swimming beaches, volcanic islands that resemble a moonscape and lush predator-free wildlife sanctuaries, Auckland really does have it all.
But if the beach isn’t your thing there are plenty of parks, gardens, shopping, restaurants and entertainment to satisfy most visitors and locals.
Top 25 fun things to do in Auckland
1 Viaduct Basin
The Viaduct Basin is a Marina, dining precinct and accommodation hub in central Auckland. Its waterfront position is one of our top picks for a lazy summer afternoon of eating and drinking. In this area, you’ll also find the Maritime Museum, there’s always something happening as you stroll around and a variety of boat tours out on the Hauraki Gulf such as this sailing experience on a genuine Americas Cup yacht depart from here.
2 Wynyard Quarter & Silo park
From the Basin head out in a western direction over the Wynyard Crossing. A drawbridge lifts up to allow boats to pass out from the inner basin, you might need to wait a few minutes for the bridge to lower but this is the way across on foot. On the other side is the Wynyard Quarter. Built on reclaimed land it includes some fabulous cafes and restaurants, North Wharf, a community garden, a park, some of the best views of the Sky Tower and the Auckland fish market.
Auckland city is now trialling a Lime e-scooter scheme and the wide flat spaces along here make it an ideal place to test them out. If you like them they can be a fun option for getting around the inner city and fringe areas like the Auckland Domain and up to Ponsonby.
3 Mission Bay
As you head east of the city along the waterfront there are a number of city beaches. One of the most popular is Mission Bay for family days at the beach, a swim, a walk along the promenade and lunch. We love to sit upstairs at De Fontein Belgian Beer Cafe with family and friends enjoying the views, a cold glass of wine and pots of their wonderful mussels. It was somewhere we would often take visitors and now we still love to head here when we’re back in town.
Devonport is a scenic 12-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland and an easy way to include a trip across to the North Shore into your visit. Walk down the heritage main street, stop in at the many bars, cafes and restaurants, relax on the beach and stroll the Queens parade waterfront. There are also some great galleries and gift stores to browse through.
If you’ve made it as far as Devonport make sure you have your walking shoes on and head up North Head, the views from here out to the city and out to the islands and sparkling waters of the Hauraki Gulf are spectacular. This was always our favourite lookout to take visitors to the city so they could really see it at it’s best.
This sport is also rich in both Maori and wartime history and it’s worth finding a bit of time to walk the trails, explore the tunnels and take in the fabulous views. We have our post on Devonport and North Head
6 Climb an extinct volcano
Auckland is a built on a volcanic plateau of 53 volcanos that have erupted over the last 250,000 years. The most recently active was Rangitoto, an island in the Hauraki Gulf, that last erupted around 600 years ago. Rangitoto Island is symbolic of the city but it’s a deceptive landmark as it’s virtually symmetrical and looks the same wherever you view it from on land or in the water.
It’s a 25-minute ferry ride from the city or you could try something a little different like making the crossing in a kayak before climbing to the summit. The Waitemata Harbour is a fabulous place for kayaking, we used to own a couple of sea kayaks when we lived here and it’s a fabulous experience being out there on the water under your own paddle power.
On the island, it’s about an hours walk up to the summit and the views from the top are stunning. On a clear day, you can see all the lush green islands in the harbour west as far as the Waitakere and the Hunua Ranges to the east. Along the way appreciate the worlds largest forest of Pohutakawa trees, in summer they are covered in brilliant red flowers and are known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree and bring a torch if you can to explore the black lava caves you pass.
The view of Rangitoto Island for North Head
7 Waiheke Island
Another highly recommended island to visit from Auckland is Waiheke. This is a popular spot for family holidays and weekend retreats but it’s equally good for a day trip from the city. It takes around 40 minutes on the ferry to get out there and there’s a bus to get around major stops on the island.
In addition to the gorgeous beaches and walks, there are some excellent wineries on the island, the Mudbrick being one of my personal favourites for its harbour views in addition to the food and wine. If wine tasting and stopping off at the various vineyards is something you’d like to do including a delicious (and generous) platter lunch plus the island’s key sights then this Waiheke Island tour is highly recommended.
8 Takapuna & the northern beaches
Head across the Harbour Bridge you find yourself in North Shore City, this is an alternate route to Devonport and North Head if you have a vehicle but if you’re staying in the city the ferry is a quicker and picturesque way across. There are many great beaches on the North Shore, the largest and best known is Takapuna.
Buses run regularly from the city to Takapuna and take around 20 minutes. Here you’ll not only find extensive beachfront and parklands but shopping, restaurants and cafes.
From the Takapuna depot or the city, you can get a bus to most of the beaches that run north from here including Milford, Mairangi Bay, Browns Bay and Long Bay.
Long Bay is a favourite, the beach is around a kilometre long, behind it is a Regional Park and the waters offshore are a marine park and offer safe swimming. From the end of the beach, you can follow the walkway up over the sandstone cliffs to some areas of native forest and fabulous coastal views.
Auckland is located on a narrow isthmus of land, the beaches and islands we have looked at so far have been on the east coast but it’s only a short hop across to the west coast and some quite different landscape with the black sand surf beaches.
At Murawai there’s an excellent clifftop walkway and a large mainland gannet colony. The surf is good but best for experienced surfers and the sunsets from the beach are stunning, well worth picking up a picnic and taking a drive out here.
10 The Auckland Domain and Museum
The Domain is a 200-acre park established in 1880, from duck ponds to native forest, cricket grounds, the historic Wintergarden and the Auckland War memorial museum can be found here.
The museum sits on the explosion crater and remains of the tuff ring that was once the ancient volcano Pukekawa. Auckland is made up of around 50 volcanos that last erupted between 100,000 and 600 years ago and Pukekawa is one of the older ones.
Growing up in Auckland you are aware that you live on a volcanic field but I learned far more about them on my latest visit than I ever had before with a trip to the volcano exhibit here at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The interactive display is excellent and worth doing if you have some time and interest. The only reason I hesitate to recommend it fully is that museum entry is now priced on a sliding scale based on whether you are an Aucklander, New Zealander or overseas visitor which I found quite embarrassing. If you’re a visitor then entry at $25 an adult is quite steep especially if you are only planning on staying to visit one or two exhibits. I contrast this to the excellent Te Papa museum in Wellington which is free for everyone.
Upstairs in the museum is the war memorial. It’s an emotional experience seeing names from our family and so many others up on the wall but an important place to remember, pay respects and be thankful. It was encouraging to see children being taken through and having it explained to them.
Outside again in the Domain, if you head down to your left and past the sports grounds, the Wintergarden will be on your right. This pair of ornate glass houses, one a tropical house and the other temperate were built in the early 1900s and include some rare and interesting specimens. The two houses are joined by the courtyard with pond and vine-covered walkway. Entry to the Wintergarden is free. The Hop on Hop off bus circuit passes through the Domain and we saw a few of the Lime scooters around with people clearly making use of the zippy alternative for inner-city commutes.
11 Waitakere Ranges
The Waitakere Ranges National Park is a 40-minute drive west of the city. This is an amazing place to go for anyone who enjoys time out in nature. There are 16,000 hectares of native bush and coastline here crisscrossed with 250 km of walking tracks suited for all ages, interests and fitness levels.
On a scale of maximum impact and minimum effort the 10-minute easy walking track to the 30-metre high Karekare Falls is hard to beat but if you are out to earn your outdoor cred then the 4-day hike (or tramp as the locals call it) along the Hilary Track is the one you are looking for.
12 One Tree Hill & Cornwall Park
Although two distinct parks they are fully joined and it’s unclear when you move from one to the next, with 670 acres between them there is plenty of room to spread out and aside from the cafe and the hilltop it rarely feels busy. Maungakiekie or One Tree Hill is another of the city’s volcanic peaks that erupted with 3 craters, one remains complete the other two were breached by lava flows. The site is important to both Maori and European settler history and the obelisk that stands on it recognises that, on its face is a statue of a Maori Warrior, beneath it is the grave of John Logan Campbell.
The site is an important one to Aucklanders, together with Rangitoto sitting offshore it’s an instantly recognised landmark of the city and one we love but it does have some angst in its recent history. Today One Tree Hill has no tree, it was attacked by Maori activists in 1994 and again in 2000 to bring attention to the treatment of Maori by the government following the Treaty of Waitangi. Sadly the distinctive tree didn’t survive the second attack.
You need to walk part of the way to the top now, this photo was taken a couple of years ago when the road was still open but it’s worth doing it for the 360-degree views from up there on a clear day.
Cornwall Park next door is still used as farmland in its suburban landscape, you’ll be sharing it with a few sheep and rabbits but it has plenty of open space to get some fresh air or host a bit of a get together on a sunny Auckland day. There’s an impressive stand of Kauri trees, children’s parks, a cafe and the Stardome Observatory is in the grounds too.
13 Auckland Zoo
Auckland Zoo makes a great day out for the whole family. We’ve been here many times over the years and appreciate their commitment to conservation, research and ensuring a safe and quality environment for the animals. With 135 species in natural enclosures over the 16-hectare park, there is a lot to see and do.
Not technically in Auckland itself but only an hours drive north is Matakana and as a bit of a foodie, I had to put this one on the list. This is a great day out, and a quick pro tip here is to always pack the chilly bin just in case you are tempted with something perishable, I know I always am.
Matakana Farmers Market is held every Saturday from 8 am until 1 pm in Market Square and there are many fabulous finds here. From market fresh fruit and vegetables to artisan product, the most incredible honey and ready to eat treats you will find it all here. Stop by, eat up and pick up some treats for later.
If you’ve missed the market then Matakana Market Kitchen is a cafe nearby serving up seasonal, local and creative dishes in a relaxed environment.
There are a number of wineries in the area, you can stop in for a tasting, breath in that fresh vineyard air and enjoy a platter or meal at some of them. Ascension Wines has been a long time favourite and many a weekend afternoon has been spent here with family and friends.
Nearby you’ll find Point Wells and Omaha Beach, these areas have grown up a lot in recent years but are still rugged and beautiful. There’s now a cycleway that connects Matakana with them both, it’s mostly offroad but does include a couple of gravel and road sections. Along the way, you can stop off at vineyards, cafes and the well known local pottery, Morris and James. Bikes..
Spend a day surrounded by nature and birdsong at this beautiful tract of native forest just minutes from central Wellington. The Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary is the ideal place to learn about New Zealand birds but this is a must-do for everyone visiting Wellington, not just the birders.
The opportunity to experience nature and local wildlife is something we enjoy both locally in Australia and when we travel. Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, offers a unique opportunity to see native New Zealand birds and reptiles in the wild only a few minutes from the Wellington city centre.
We were amazed at the diversity of wildlife, intense birdsong and how good it was to be back in the New Zealand bush. It’s a fabulous spot just to be present in nature for a while, especially if your trip doesn’t have time to take on some of New Zealand’s exceptional hiking trails.
Getting to Zealandia
We flew into New Zealand with Jetstar Australia on a multi-city fare. We find the ability to fly in and out of different cities both time and cost-effective. On this trip it allowed us to maximise precious time with family in Auckland and still fit in some of the highlights in Wellington, including Zealandia Sanctuary.
This quick snap out of the window over Wellington harbour gives an idea of just how beautiful and green Wellington is and why the Zealandia Sanctuary 500 year vision is so important to protect this clean green land.
After breakfast in the city centre, we headed over to the cable car station. For a ticket price of $5 you can take a ride with a view through to the terminal station at the top of the Botanic Gardens. It’s only a few steps from here to the pickup point for the Zealandia shuttle.
The first shuttle pickup is at 9 am and we made sure we were ready for that one so we could have as much time as we wanted to explore the sanctuary during the day. The shuttle is free and in keeping with their environmental objectives, it’s the only fully electric shuttle in Australasia. Ten minutes later we were booked onto the first tour of the day starting at 10 and having an initial look around. If you do head in early you can make the most of this peaceful time when the birds are really active.
Getting the most from your Zealandia Sanctuary visit
While you can visit the sanctuary and explore on your own, the 2-hour guided tour will take you on a walking tour around key tracks. Your guide points out the native wildlife, the best spots and habitat for spotting different things, how to identify some of the birds and answers questions about the sanctuary and what you will potentially see there.
With limited time we decided to do the tour but even if you lived locally and got an annual pass I think it could be well worth doing the tour at least once. There’s a lot you can learn from the guides, even after having lived in New Zealand most of my life I picked up some things I didn’t know and certainly got to see a few of the inhabitants that I might have missed otherwise. We also got great value with our tour going for closer to 3 hours than 2.
The entry ticket is $19.50 or inclusive of the tour $55. There is also an option for a night tour after the park has closed that I would love to do one day with so many of the local birds, including the elusive Little Spotted Kiwi being nocturnal. Something I wasn’t aware of until we purchased our ticket is that you can visit the following day for free by re-presenting your ticket. We didn’t have enough time in our schedule to allocate a second day this time but it’s worth keeping in mind. Despite arriving on the first shuttle of the day we were still among the last to leave on the 4.50 pm shuttle with the park closing at 5 pm.
The Zealandia Sanctuary is a true sanctuary, not a bird park. They have a 500-year plan for this impressive tract of land to restore the forest floor and freshwater ecosystem to a pre-settler state in that time. With the exception of a small stand of pine, most of the flora is already native as are the birds and reptiles that live here. Similar reserves are often established on islands giving them a natural barrier but here the 225 hectares had to be fenced with advanced predator fencing both above ground and buried deep to prevent access to burrowing critters.
New Zealand is part of the land mass of Zealandia from which the eco-sanctuary takes its name. Most of this continent still sits under the sea. It was formed as we know it today around 1.8 million years ago when the Southern Alps rose 1000’s of metres out of the ocean and a mass of violent volcanic activity took place. The ice age that followed formed glaciers that carved out the dramatic landscape of valleys and lakes. There were no mammals in New Zealand, either animal or human, for the majority of its history. Human settlement is relatively recent. The Maori and Moriori People both came to New Zealand around 1300 from Polynesia, and European settlers followed in 1642. Both waves of settlement brought mammals that threatened New Zealand’s established native bird and reptile populations.
The kiore or Polynesia rat is a massive threat having been introduced as a food source by early Maori settlers. With the Europeans came many more, the Norway rat, weasels, ferrets, cats, stoats and possums. Fencing was one thing but eradicating predators within the grounds humanely and without harm to the precious and often endangered native species was a massive challenge.
You can learn more about the geological formation of New Zealand, it’s native wildlife and how they turned Wellingtons original reservoir system into this impressive eco-sanctuary in an engaging audio-visual display at Zealandia. You are taken through it as the first part of your guided tour but if you are setting your own pace I’d highly recommend setting aside a little time to see it.
The property still has the upper and lower reservoir lakes and the old gothic style gear tower on the lower lake. A building has also been constructed at the entry to house the cafe, shop, ticket desk, discovery centre and other facilities. Beyond that, it’s nature at its best. They have graded the main path to provide a degree of accessibility but there are loads of dirt tracks that run off into the hillside, the Wellington hills have a high rainfall so it can be a bit muddy and you’ll want to wear appropriate shoes but for the main trails you’ll be fine in sneakers or similar flat footwear.
Some of the New Zealand birds at Zealandia
In New Zealand, most birds have 3 names, their common name, their Maori name and their scientific name. Sometimes the common and Maori names are the same and where they have both many New Zealanders will use them interchangeably.
The Tui is always a favourite. The sanctuary has boosted the population of these right around Wellington significantly. We were really pleased to spot them frequently throughout the city parks and gardens over the next few days.
The orange colour in the feathers at the base of the Tui’s beak that you can see in the photo above isn’t part of its natural colouring although you will often see it there. These birds love to feed on pollen sticking as much of their head as possible inside one of their favourites feasts, the flax flower. The pollen dust is deeply pigmented and stains their feathers giving them this golden glow that beautifully complements their teal colouring.
The other distinctive feature of this New Zealand bird is its white bib. There’s actually a Maori legend about how the Tui got its chest feathers that we all learned as children. It’s the story of how the Kiwi lost his wings. Tane Mahuta, God of the forest was concerned about the bugs damaging his trees and the birds were asked to help out by giving up their wings and living on the forest floor. The Tui refused and said the forest floor was dark and he was scared of the dark. Tane Mahuta punished all Tuis from that day on for being cowards and makes them wear the two white chest feathers so everyone will know.
Another bird that Zealandia Sanctuary has had huge success with is the Saddleback. The medium-sized bird is readily recognised with its glossy back feathers with a russet saddle across its back, as a wattlebird you’ll also notice a bright red wattle on either side of its beak.
The North Island Saddleback is one of New Zealand’s most remarkable conservation stories. It came very close to extinction getting as low as a single population on an island in the Hen and Chickens group. Extensive conservation work has been undertaken since the 1960’s and now there are a solid number of populations dispersed amongst island and mainland sanctuaries including Zealandia. In 2017 there was the first confirmed successful hatching of saddleback chicks in Wellington outside the sanctuary, a huge reason for celebration.
The Wood Pigeon (or Kereru in Maori) is another one of my favourites and I always feel blessed to see these beauties. When we lived in Auckland there was one that regularly gave me a fright as it crash-landed in the tree outside my bathroom window to gorge on berries. They are a solid bird and I think it often came to a halt several branches below the one it originally intended.
The feathers on their head and neck are jewel-toned and come across almost holographic when you see the sun hit them on an open branch.
The Kaka is a mid-sized parrot that lives in the forests across New Zealand. They are on the endangered list too but are breeding well in the reserve. This is one of the birds that is fed at a feeding station in the park, my understanding is that this isn’t intended to continue indefinitely but is in place to deal with the lack of food that results from the deforestation that has put them on the endangered list.
There are also a couple of feeding stations for the small honeyeaters. At these we were able to spot Ensuring the correct food is available and in the correct quantities to ensure the birds remain wild but adequately fed is managed by experienced staff, it’s not recommended that you feed birds at home. If you want to find things you can do to bring native birds to your New Zealand garden the Zealandia team have some tips on their website.
Zealandia has over 40 different birds that are seen within the eco-sanctuary and many of them are endemic meaning that New Zealand is the only place in the world they are found.
Tuatara, a first for us
Something I was very excited to see at Zealandia was a Tuatara and I may have missed my first one if we hadn’t had the guide. We were lucky enough to see several of different ages and sizes during our day here. The tuataras were brought into the sanctuary as part of the conservation programme and now live wild in the burrows they have established in the hillside.
It was hoped the endangered species will continue to strengthen and diversify the population and in 2008 that eventuated when the first baby tuatara hatched on the mainland in over 200 years.
They truly are a fascinating creature, they aren’t a lizard as many assume. The species originated some 200 million years ago in the time of the dinosaur and has changed very little over that time which is why they are often considered a living fossil. Their DNA sequence is extremely complex and almost twice the size of a human. Another interesting feature is that as hatchlings they have a visible third eye that is located on the top of their head. After a few months, this eye is covered over by their scales. It’s connected directly to their brain and research indicates it’s not for vision but is connected to circadian rhythm and temperature regulation.
Visitor information and facilities
When we returned from our tour we decided to go in search of lunch and a cuppa before heading back out to walk some of the tracks on our own.
The Rata Cafe was a pleasant surprise. Often the food options with a captive customer base are disappointing but this was an exception. While we did choose the burger option but there were plenty of other choices including gluten-free and vegan.
The burger patties are made in-house with kawakawa pesto. Kawakawa is an endemic plant so it ticked my box for trying local and indigenous food, plus it was juicy and delicious. There’s also caramelised onion, tomato and Swiss cheese inside the brioche bun and it comes with a side of chips. New Zealand really does do the best fries.
There’s indoor and outdoor seating and we timed it right for this great table with a view. We also had a visit from an inquisitive Kaka part way through so do be prepared to protect the birds from themselves and defend your lunch. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would feed human food to a bird here but he was still going to try it on with all the cuteness he could muster.
Not only do proceeds from the cafe go back into the Trust to continue the vision but they also commit to the environment in other ways including biodegradable packaging, safe cleaning products and composting all food waste, napkins, & coffee grinds. They have their own organic vegetable garden onsite that produces herbs and vegetables used in the cafe and beyond that, they source produce locally as much as possible.
Opening hours, times and tickets
Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary is open every day of the year except Christmas Day. Gates open at 9 am with last entry at 4 pm and gates closing at 5 pm. The cafe also opens at 9 am.
To plan your way around there’s a digital map and you’ll receive a paper copy when you arrive. The main track is a must and will take 1-2 hours, or more depending on how often you stop. Then there is a range of additional tracks that you won’t be able to complete all in the one day. Some are short detours, quite a few are wheelchair accessible, then there are hiking tracks (tramping in New Zealand) that are going to require a higher level of fitness and footwear.
We highly recommend a visit to the Zealandia Sanctuary when visiting Wellington, whether you come for a few hours or squeeze the full 2 days from your ticket there is more than enough to do for anyone who loves nature and being outdoors.
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If you have any questions about our experience at Zealandia or planning your visit to Wellington please get in touch through the comment section below. If you have your own experience you’d like to share with others please feel free to add that too.
We’re regularly out trying new walking tracks and this Southern Gold Coast boardwalk and river trail is something many will enjoy. We walk it as part of a circuit that combines the boardwalk through the mangrove ecosystem, a touch of history walking across Queenslands oldest remaining rail bridge, excellent cafes, one of the most popular surf beaches on the Gold Coast and a lagoon that presents an overwhelming array of fun options for the whole family.
The Currumbin Creek Walking Trail
You can start your walk anywhere along the route but the Tarrabora Reserve carpark on Currumbin Lagoon is a great starting point. If you arrive here a little later in the day as we did after a detour to BamBam’s, one of the best brunch spots on the Gold Coast it can be a bit more difficult to get a car park. In that case you can try the Beree-Badalla Reserve parking on the other side of the road or anywhere along the walking route such as the boat ramp, Currumbin Beach or along the southern side of the river.
The main reason we favor the Tarrabora car park is that it’s right off the highway and a great place to end your walk if you want to spend some time relaxing by the lagoon, taking a swim or renting a SUP to paddle around in the calm waters.
The main circuit is just under 4 km back to the car park and if you decide to continue on to Currumbin Beach and Lion Rock that’s a 2.7 km round trip addition so under 7 km for the complete walk with plenty of great places to stop along the way.
As you can see on the route map above you start off at Tarrabora Reserve walking through the bushland path on the edge of the lagoon and passing under the highway bridge to the river and Beree-Badalla Reserve. Here you join the boardwalk and continue through the mangrove area. At high tide, the boardwalk ‘floats’ on the tide and when it’s low, small beaches appear along the river. There’s a wide diversity of birds and fish you can spot through here and along the boardwalk there are seats and covered areas to sit and enjoy the view.
The boardwalk continues along to the Throwers Road boat ramp. If you stick to the water’s edge from here you can cross under the road and continue on a riverfront path past the sports oval until you reach the historic railway bridge that today runs next to and beneath the Pacific Motorway.
On the other side of the river head back towards the coast along the river path through parklands and river frontage as far as the lagoon then cross the Gold Coast Highway bridge on the pedestrian path and return to the lagoon beach.
If you want to extend your walk, instead of crossing the bridge at this point continue on and down to Currumbin beach. This is one of the best surf breaks on the Gold Coast, it’s really popular with the more advanced surfers and there are surf carnivals held here throughout the year. There’s a great surf club to sit out for lunch right on the beach or climb Lion Rock for the view down the beach and see if you can spot whales passing in winter. Currumbin beach is also the location of the popular Swell Sculpture Festival, an outdoor art even held in September each year and the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Beree-Badalla boardwalk
The Beree-Badalla Reserve was established in 1983 running between the Gold Coast highway in the east as far west as the Thrower Drive boat ramp. At both ends, a vehicle and footbridge cross the river. Very little salt-marsh remains on the Gold Coast making it and the surrounding mangrove ecosystem an important habitat for marine wildlife living in the Currumbin Creek.
I read on a sign in the reserve that 3 out of 4 fish living in our oceans today either start life in a mangrove environment or rely on the mangrove forests for their food. It’s not surprising then that these eco-systems are so essential to our healthy rivers and ocean.
There are so many options for enjoying this Gold Coast boardwalk.
1Sheltered picnic areas are built along the way for quiet contemplation, a picnic or fishing. These are a great place to catch a bit of shade and a slight cooling breeze off the water on a hot day.
2The boardwalk is wide and solidly built. You can comfortably walk side by side and allow room for other walkers to pass. Depending on the tide the view can vary a lot. On a high tide, the walkway hovers about the water on either side, very pretty and quite a surreal experience. On low tide, the salt marsh is exposed and it’s easier to spot the small fish and sealife in the clear shallow water beneath the path.
3It’s stunning out on the water and boats of all types are super popular. You couldn’t get a much better spot for kayaking with the crystal clear flat water and there’s plenty to see along the banks on either side.
4A stop in at the Boatshed is an almost certainty on the south side of the river. Whether it’s a warming winter cuppa or one of their zingy refreshing juices on a summers day. There’s lunch options here or ice cream if that’s what you have in mind.
5The heritage Currumbin Creek rail bridge crosses at the western end of the walking trail just below the highway offers a glimpse of Queensland’s past. The bridge has been part of the Gold Coast landscape since 1903 and although it’s no longer in use by trains it’s been used as a footbridge since the 1960’s with the safety balustrades added in the 1990’s.
6The birds and wildlife offer another element to the reserve and riverwalk. You’ll spot a variety of small fish and crabs in the river, birds such as the brightly coloured kingfishers and pelicans are seen along the water’s edge and from the ocean end, we’ve regularly seen dolphins and whales in season passing by.
White Faced Heron
However you plan it, the Beree Badalla Reserve is a great resource for the Gold Coast and extended with the loop walk along the river’s edge and a swim at either the Currumbin Lagoon or beach front it’s a great addition to your day at the beach.
Planning to visit the Gold Coast? Here are some other options you might enjoy.
The Northern Explorer is one of the great journeys of New Zealand travelling between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island’s main trunk line. Join us as we experience the scenery, service and serenity of train travel through this beautiful country.
Despite having had several of New Zealand’s great rail experiences on our wish list for over a decade, way back when we still lived there, we’ve only recently taken our first Kiwi Rail adventure. If you’ve been around here long you’ll know how much we love train travel. We never miss the opportunity for a new rail adventure, whether it’s a super fast bullet train across Japan, a heritage steam train into a hot spring valley or floating over small towns in a hanging monorail on the way to Enoshima. Why then, has it taken so long for us to do a long distance train trip in New Zealand.
In reality, we just never got the plan to fit together. This year when we started planning to visit both Auckland and Wellington we knew it was the perfect opportunity to include the Great Journeys of NZ – Northern Explorer. We’ve driven up and down the North Island many times over the years and were excited to see how the train trip would compare.
The Northern Explorer journey
Our tickets were pre-booked online so when we arrived at the Auckland station we only needed to exchange our booking voucher for seat tickets and drop our tagged suitcases at the luggage car to be stowed. The luggage compartment can’t be accessed by passengers during the trip so you know your gear is secure and you don’t need to fuss with it. Just make sure you have anything you might need during the trip in your small cabin bag. The check-in process was fast, smooth and welcoming and we were settling into our seats within a few minutes of waving goodbye to the family.
The Northern Explorer runs in each direction 3 times a week. From Auckland on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, then back from Wellington on the Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
At the Auckland end you leave from a dedicated stop on the city fringe, our train was ready and waiting when we arrived so we collected our tickets, tagged up our bags and found our seats in the first carriage behind the open-air viewing deck.
Seating and facilities
Specific seats can’t be pre-booked but generally, couples are seated in pairs of forward facing seats, these have tray tables and good leg room plus a baggage rack above for light items. Families or groups that book together can share a 4-person booth facing each other with a table between them.
The train has a capacity for 198 passengers and on the day we travelled it would have been very close to full. We were seated in a booth and had it to ourselves for part of the trip with another couple joining us at Hamilton. This leaves a bit of a dilemma on how you divide the seating. We had been allocated window seats (1A and 2A) which was disappointing for the couple arriving later who both had an aisle seat on their ticket and it also meant we would have to ask to be let out every time we wanted to go to the cafe car, outdoor viewing or bathroom. We swapped so each couple had a window and aisle seat and soon got chatting together. Although it did mean having less room to spread out than a standard seat it was also an opportunity to swap travel stories and pick up some tips on Wellington.
The train is kept immaculate throughout the trip. The team came around regularly collecting rubbish so you were never sitting on an empty cup for long and the bathrooms were cleaned frequently throughout the day. It was a fairly small staff carrying out all the duties so they were on the go non-stop and you got to know them. They were all excellent, friendly and very knowledgeable about the train and regions we were passing through. I have to give a special mention to Simone though, she was there to great us at check-in, stopped by regularly during the trip and was still looking fresh as a daisy when we arrived in Wellington in the early evening.
The configuration of the train has 7 sections. The engine is followed by the open-air carriage, passenger car A, passenger car B, the cafe car, passenger car D and finally the luggage car. At the front of each of the 4 main carriages are toilet facilities, these are a decent size for those dealing with children and are set up for wheelchair accessibility.
Eating and drinking along the way
You can walk through to the cafe car at any time and either take items back to your seats or use the seating in there while you eat or drink. Alternatively, the crew walk the train regularly and you’re able to order from them directly and have food delivered to your seat, it’s an easy option if you feel a bit unsteady in the moving train. Purchases can be made in cash or you can open a tab by leaving your credit card in an envelope in the cafe car. The reason for them running it like that rather than individual card purchases is that you’re travelling through some fairly remote countryside and a connection for the payment network isn’t always available so it’s tallied up at the end of the trip.
The food options are quite diverse with a range of more healthy options from Wishbone, full hot meals such as lamb shanks or Thai chicken curry and who can go past the ubiquitous train pie. We felt the food and drinks were priced fairly, you expect to pay a bit more in such a captive environment but they didn’t seem unreasonably marked up. You are also able to bring food and drink onboard with you.
Getting even closer to the view
The carriages are designed to show off New Zealand’s scenic beauty and not simply a way to get from A to B. The picture windows allow incredible views from your seat and the sky windows above the luggage rack allow in extra light and an enhanced viewing experience.
The thing I was most looking forward to experiencing was the open air carriage. This feature turns the relaxed pace of the Kiwi Rail journey into something very unique, you just couldn’t do this in bullet train or in a more built up country. With such incredible scenery outside the window, we found we spent an even bigger portion of the trip out there than we would have expected. It wasn’t particularly cold on the day we travelled but I’d suggest having something a bit warmer than the weather would suggest with you and for those with longer hair something to tie it up with to avoid the tangles.
The outdoor carriage is for all passengers to use freely throughout the trip. It’s designed without seats which maximise the viewing space and there’s a rail to use if you need to steady yourself. Despite a full train, it was the right sized space, it never seemed so busy that you couldn’t get a spot out there when you wanted it and was a good place to meet and chat with fellow travellers. During the day you have the ability to move around the train freely and are even be encouraged to, it’s one of the things we love about rail travel. This car is a favourite with photographers whether they are touting oversized L lenses or their phones.
Because you’re travelling through some undeveloped parts of the country you have a spectacular view out of the window and time to connect with those you are travelling with or meet en route but you may not be connected digitally the whole time. The train doesn’t have WIFI available to passengers because of the difficulty maintaining a connection but we did have decent coverage on our Wifi2go router for most of the train journey and throughout the rest of our time in NZ.
We’ve been travelling internationally with their device and data plan for the last couple of years and find it so convenient. We usually connect both phones, both tablets and a laptop to it when we arrive in a country and then only need to remember to put it on charge in our room overnight. WIFI2GO offer our readers a discounted price of $8 per day if they mention the 2 Aussie Travellers deal when they book.
The train is set up to be accessible to those using wheelchairs. There are dedicated spaces in the cafe carriage including an option that can be set up in a booth arrangement if travelling with other passengers.
Toilet facilities were accessible for wheelchairs or other mobility aids and the team were so well tuned in to which passengers wanted regular attention and who was happy just to do their own thing that I’m confident that they’d deliver on individual expectations very well.
The exception for access would be the open air carriage.
What you’ll see along the way
The trip takes 10.5 hours and travels 680 km, leaving Auckland at 7.30 am and arriving into Wellington just before 6 pm.
Along the way, it passes through a variety of environments highlighting the diversity and contrasts of the North Island. Starting off in the Auckland inner city, we travelled out along the city beaches with glimpses of Rangitoto and the Waitemata Harbour before passing behind the Orakei Basin, an 85,000-year-old volcanic crater and heading inland.
Through the next stage of the trip, you’ll pass briefly through industrial areas of South Auckland, the Manukau Harbour and start seeing rolling farmland quite early in the trip.
The mighty Waikato River is a feature for a while as you transit through the region with the train tracks running parallel to the river. It’s New Zealand’s longest river at 425 km stretching from Lake Taupo, over the Huka Falls and north to Port Waikato, south of Auckland.
In the central North Island, the train tracks run through the Tongariro National Park with stops at National Park and Ohakune stations. On a clear day, you’ll have spectacular views of the 3 mountains, Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. The weather around the National Park is unpredictable and changes rapidly as hikers or skier will tell you. Despite great weather for most of the day the sky was ominously threatening during our brief stop.
As the train travels through the loops of the Raurimu Spiral the main thing you’ll notice is that those in the front of the train start to get glimpses of the back and vice versa but this is an impressive piece of engineering history. Back when this main trunk line was built in 1898 a major hurdle was how to negotiate the 139-metre escarpment between the valley and gorges of the Wanganui River to the west and the volcanic plateau to the east. The answer it turned out was a hairpin turn, 2 x 90 degree turns, 2 tunnels, a full loop crossing the larger tunnel and twice as much track as the distance would suggest.
Another highlight of the journey is the heritage viaduct along the banks of the Rangitikei River. The three iron truss viaducts date back to 1902 and provide stunning views of the soft mudstone cliffs and the river flowing below.
The journey wouldn’t be complete without a grand finale and the final stretch where the track meets the coast at Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, is really something special in the soft afternoon light.
The Lord of the Rings Connection
If you’re a fan of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy you may feel like you’re traversing through the movie set at times and its no coincidence. As a teenager, Peter Jackson took the same route from his Wellington home to Auckland. The scenery outside the train’s window looked a lot like the land he’d been reading about and already with the eyes of a filmmaker it undoubtedly influenced his planning for the movies all those years later.
During the journey, if you watch carefully you’ll see Mount Ngauruhoe the set for Mt Doom in the movies, the Rangitikei River which was one of several used in filming the great Anduin river scenes and Mt Ruapehu where the volcanic plains of Mordor came to life.
Have you seen the movies of followed his career? In Wellington, fans will have the chance to see more from Peter Jackson including a tour of Weta Studios, and the acclaimed Great War Exhibition.
Arriving in Wellington
We arrived into Wellington in the early evening, refreshed and energised to start exploring. Starting with checking into the Sofitel, our chosen hotel for this trip and heading out in search of the great foodie scene we’d been hearing so much about.
Instructions from the crew as we approached the station were very clear and simple, bags were offloaded quickly and we were on our way out..
With the mercury hitting 34°C (93°F) in October here in Australia, we’re already in full summer swing. Long sunny days, sand between our toes, road trips and nightly BBQ’s are just a few of the many things we’re looking forward to this summer.
Today I thought we’d share our 2019 summer essentials that we’ll be taking along with us on our adventures. I’m sure you’ll be spotting many of these in our Insta Stories over the next few months.
There are so many new products to market each year but we try to buy and keep only those things that we use often and really love, anything more just creates clutter. When something makes it to our essentials list it’s been thoroughly considered, tested in real life and genuinely found a place in our kit. If you have travel enthusiasts to shop for this holiday season you might find some ideas here or perhaps inspiration for your own summer wish list.
Dips in the pool and days at the beach are essential for staying cool in the summer heat and humidity. While I spend summer with a bag packed ready to go for just that reason, traditional beach towels can be a bit bulky. They’re also slow to dry, heavy when wet and get clogged up with sand that can give you a very unwelcome exfoliation as you dry off.
Tesalate towels are a newer addition to our kit but have already made a couple of trips to the beach and taken a place in our travel bags. Although we generally stay in hotels with big fluffy towels we still carry our own in our day bags as they invariably come in useful on a trip. We’ve used them for everything from drying off after that unexpected foot onsen we found at the end of a hike just out of Osaka to claiming a space in the afternoon sun at a food festival we discovered in a city park.
The Tesalate towel is a great option for all of these uses. It folds up super compact and fits into it’s own pouch to carry. It’s really absorbent allowing you to dry off quickly, and even when it’s wet, the sand doesn’t stick to it. I’m not sure what sort of voodoo magic that is but it really works. They come in super cute color combos and for those like me who love a monochromatic aesthetic they have great black and white designs too.
Living in a sub-tropical climate we head to the beach regularly all year round so this one has found itself a permanent spot in my beach bag.
The Ultimate Camp Loungers
For the campsite or road trip we’re loving the OZtrail Sun Lounger Deluxe. The padding and tension in the lacing are super comfortable and the head rest adjusts to just the right spot. Whether sitting up or reclining, legs stretched out or down, you really couldn’t get more flexibility from a chair. The timber style arm rests look extra classy and at the end of the day it folds up into a convenient canvas furniture bag for easy carrying and stowage, the bag also keeps any stray sand or mess from the day from getting spread throughout the car on the trip home.
OZtrail are known for their quality and you can see that these are well made so I’m confident they’ll last the distance. Picnics and BBQ’s are a mainstay of summer and the tray table and drink holder are perfect for this. Being attached they pack away conveniently under the chair but are stable and a decent size to set your self up for a very comfortable day.
The loungers are a bit bigger and heavier than our standard beach chairs but this is a whole different level of luxury . The chairs recline virtually flat, I’m not going to confirm or deny but it might have been possible to take a fairly sound nap in one of these!
The Future of Thongs
Having grown up in NZ and now living in the sub-tropical paradise of South East Queensland I’m always happiest in bare feet or my thongs (jandals as we call them back in New Zealand). That was until 2 years ago when plantar fasciitis created intense heel pain unless my foot was fully supported and cushioned.
Finding the Archies arch support thongs has made a massive difference and got me back enjoying walks in the sand. They look just like the minimalist rubber thongs we’ve worn since we were kids but are constructed with some subtle but important differences. Those differences make them comfortable to walk in and wear for an extended time. The heel section is elevated slightly to reduce the strain on the Achilles tendon, they’re made of soft memory foam for comfort on sensitized feet, the strap fits firmly but comfortably preventing you slipping around in them and they have a choice of two arch support levels.
My preference is the high arch, which provides similar balance to my foot as my normal orthotic inserts. Although Drew doesn’t have any specific foot problems he’s been wearing the Archies normal arch and also finds it comfortable, especially the subtle shaping around the toes that prevents rubbing and gripping.
I love that this range was created by a young Australian physiotherapist who saw a gap in the market. Not only is it always good to support a local brand but who knows thongs better than an Aussie.
For obvious reasons these have also quickly become a summer staple. While my thong of choice is black, no surprise there, you can check out the full colour range here.
A backpack that goes from the city to the mountains
It took a while to make the investment in the Peak Designs everyday backpack, these aren’t a cheap option but it’s versatility, style and functionality have made it an indispensable part of summer and my travel kit. So much so that Drew also just bought himself one, in the bigger size.
The designers started out with a kickstarter project to create the ultimate everyday backpack, and it really does function for most daily purposes where you’d consider a backpack without compromising on how well it serves the purpose.
I’ve been looking for a better camera backpack for a while, the one I had was good but it had a few weaknesses that for me were really frustrating. First of all it didn’t have external pockets for a water bottle and while I could squeeze a small one into the top section I really didn’t like it lying on its side above expensive camera equipment. My peak design has 2 big but grippy pockets that hold a good size water bottle upright, it doesn’t move and it doesn’t fall out when I lean over.
Secondly, often when I want a camera backpack I’m travelling on a plane. All my delicate camera gear plus electronics like laptop and iPad and in flight comforts also need to come with me. My previous bag just couldn’t fit all that so I ended up with 2 pieces of hand luggage which is a pain when you travel a lot or move around a bit at your destination, you really want it in one compact piece. The Peak Everyday fits as much as I need in the one bag but everything is structured to make it easy to get at what I want.
Another issue has been the limited choice of backpacks that are comfortable on my narrow shoulders, I’m just under 5’2″ and while I’m a little rounded I do have a small frame, not many packs are made to fit me comfortably. The everyday backpack comes in a choice of 20L and 30L to fit different back length and requirements but most importantly the attachment of the straps is pivoted and it sits perfectly comfortably whether it’s around the airport or on a day hike in the rain forest.
I plan to add a full review of this and how I set it up to get the best use from it soon as it has been a game changer but you can take a closer look at the specs here.
The Best Summer tunes
Chilled out tunes for relaxing to and an energized beat to inspire exercise against the odds are an essential for summer. I’m way behind the times having only signed up for Spotify 6 months back but we’re absolutely loving it.
I don’t need to spend time anymore creating new playlists as my mood changes, they do it all for me and pretty much anything I could think of to listen to is on there, very useful when you have very eclectic tastes and a few decades of memories to choose from. I also don’t need to manage a dis-organised selection of music from so many different sources.
What’s on my playlist? Well a whole lot to be honest but I’m loving working this summer to the laid back sounds of the Your Favorite Coffeehouse playlist and for the road trips what good Gen X can go past the 80’s rock anthems (sorry in advance to my millennial friends).
This little beauty is hard to go past as a staple in the caravan, for camping and day trips. We’ve now started using ours as our main BBQ at home too. It’s even lighter to lift than it looks, easy to clean and you can cook a lot more on it than you would expect from its seemingly small size.
Being gas powered it’s safe to use and generally permitted even in the National Park’s that we love so much but it’s equally quick and easy to pack up and head to the sea breezes for an impromptu outdoor dinner with a million dollar view.
I do have to say that there are a lot of optional extras available for these and they can get a bit spendy if you buy them all at once. The basic setup lets you cook all the family BBQ favorites but I would say the extra accessories can make a real difference to the results and diversity of dishes you can prepare on your BBQ.
A tote from the plane to the beach
Something I’m finding super useful this summer is my Longchamp Le Piliage Tote. Originally I purchased it for it’s durability, large capacity and that it folds up small and flat but it’s turned out to be a great beach bag too.
I have the tote in the large size and black of course which has tan leather handles in the over the shoulder bag style, I find these more practical than the smaller hand grip handles as they give me the chose of carrying it comfortably either way. When travelling I pack it in the bottom of my suitcase so I can use it as an extra bag on the way home if I’ve got a bit of extra baggage and it’s really functional along the way when I want to carry a bit of gear for the day but not my backpack.
As a beach bag there are quite a few advantages, not only does it hold a fair bulk of gear but it’s comfortable to carry, easy to shake sand off or wipe clean from sunscreen smears, and it keeps the sand out pretty well.
My skincare doesn’t change too much year round so these products aren’t just for summer in my routine but they are essential at this time of year.
The first is hyaluronic acid, this is a hydrating acid found naturally in the skin that helps to keep it refreshed, plump and supports cellular renewal. There are various sizes of hyaluronic molecules and that determines how far into your skin the hydration effect is carried so I like to use a dedicated product like the HadaLabo Gokujyen that contains multiple weights, it’s a Korean product but I either stock up on it while in Japan or purchase online as it’s not in store here in Australia. This ensures my skin is thoroughly quenched and any pesky fine lines stay hidden away.
The second essential of course is sunscreen. While there’s been a push in the last couple of years to mineral rather than ‘chemical’ sunscreens, they’re all chemicals and all have pro’s and con’s. One of the reasons given for choosing mineral options is a reduced risk of skin irritation but this does vary depending on the individual. I get redness, heat and itching to varying degrees from many mineral sunscreen products, these are the ones that include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active ingredient so it’s taken a bit of research and discomfort to find products that don’t react for me.
Fortunately I have found some that are comfortable to wear, they look good on the skin both on their own or under makeup and I can totally rely on them to do the job even on the most hot and humid day.
For the face I prefer Biore Watery Essence, it’s SPF 50+ and PA++++ which means it has the highest level rating for blocking both the UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays. It’s got a cooling liquid, gel texture and applies quickly and evenly with great coverage so I don’t miss bits. It drys quickly and isn’t visible on the skin but leaves a smooth finish that’s a great base for makeup. I use it 365 days a year and it’s never broken me out or given the slightest irritation, you really don’t know you’r wearing it. While no solution is perfect for topping up once the makeup is on, it is important to do, the light texture of this one gets the job done and leaves my makeup intact (as much as humidity allows). I just spread it between my finger tips then press on lightly avoiding rubbing.
For the body I have a couple that I use regularly, the Banana boat Sport and Sun Comfort are both broad spectrum SPF 50+, they are affordable, readily available and they aren’t sticky or oily. They are both also water and sweat resistant.
The other one I started using last year and love is called we are Feel Good Inc . I’ve been using their broad spectrum SPF 50+ coconut sunscreen which is great when we’re swimming in the ocean, which lets face it, is a big part of summer. It’s free from oxybenzone, octinoxate, paba and parabens which makes it safer on our coral reefs and marine life. It’s not greasy, rubs in easily, can be used on face and body, isn’t tested on animals and is comfortable to wear, being designed and tested in our harsh Australian climate so we know it’s up to the job.
A great water bottle
It goes without saying that drinking water to keep your body hydrated and cooling naturally is essential throughout summer. I have a couple of water bottles and love them for different reasons. The aluminum flask style is great for keeping my water colder for longer and there are some super cute options with these available now but I don’t like drinking from the open bottle as much as a sipper. It’s also harder to keep clean as you can’t see inside so I keep these ones for water and only water.
My sipper bottle I’ve been using most days for the past year has been the Camelbak Eddy, I like that the bottle is clear so I can see that it’s really clean and I can get in there with a brush to give it a scrub. At 600 mls it’s a good size to carry but I also don’t have to top it up too many times a day.
I like the wide opening easy clean option because I put apple cider vinegar in my first bottle of the day and that can create residue if you’re not careful. I’ve also discovered the new cold brew fruit infusions by Twinings and they make a nice treat now and again but any time you’re not putting straight water in your bottle it’s going to need a bit more vigorous cleaning.
On a similar note I’m also finding the wide neck thermal jar by OZtrail a great summer option for picnics or early morning starts. While I’d originally intended this for hot drinks and soups I’ve become quite a fan of green smoothies, especially with all the fabulous tropical fruit in good supply at the moment and this keeps them icy cold until we’re ready to drink them.
Are you planning to head away anywhere fun in Australia this summer? These are a few places around the country that we love and some tips on how to enjoy the best that each has to offer.
Byron Bay is synonymous with summer in Australia. Head here to soak up the beach vibes and be as active or relaxed as you want.
North Stradbroke Island is in Morton Bay off the coast from Brisbane. For an island that is so quick and easy to get to from a capital city you will feel like you are a world away as soon as you step off the boat. Go for the day or stay a while, it really is an idyllic spot.
We find Yamba and Angourie to be a lot like Byron Bay just a few decades earlier. There are so many gorgeous beaches to chose from, wildlife, swimming holes and a stunning coastal national park.
The laid back atmosphere, gorgeous beach, proximity to the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef make Palm Cove in tropical north Queensland a great..