16 Best Winter Escapes

25 January 2011

Top touring destinations for the colder months

RVers who want to escape the winter blues have three main options:

A) The snowfields of southern NSW and northern Victoria;
B) Coastal northern NSW and Queensland; or
C) The great outback

The first of these options is for those who want to embrace the cold; the second for those who want to escape it; and the third for those who want to enjoy warm sunny days and don’t mind freezing cold nights. Here’s a rundown on some of the highlights of these destinations.





The Alpine Way, running from Jindabyne through to Khancoban and taking in Australia’s finest ski resorts – Thredbo Alpine Village and (via the Skitube railway) Perisher Valley and Blue Cow, is theoretically open to RVers for at least 40km of the road’s 108km. But motorhome-on-the-range is definitely not the way to go in winter.


The solution is to park your van at Jindabyne – at the Jindabyne Holiday Park right in town or Discovery Snowline Holiday Park, and make daytrips up to the ski resorts. If travelling from the south or the west, take the super-scenic Corryong-Tumbarumba-Batlow-Tumut-Gundagai detour.


The Mt Selwyn ski fields, less crowded than those of Thredbo/Perisher, are just 60km from Tumbarumba.



Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is renowned right across the globe. But the Great Alpine Road, running from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale, is at least as scenic as its better-known cousin. The Great Alpine Road poses no real problems for both caravans and motorhomes.


But Mt Hotham Resort Management Office says that caravanners should call (03) 5759 3550 for an up-to-date road report, as vans may not be allowed to travel on particularly blustery days or during blizzards. The only really challenging section is just past the town of Harrietville, from where the road climbs steeply following an old horse-sled trail, the Bon Accord Track, to Mount Hotham.


Mt Hotham is unique. Unlike all other Aussie ski resorts, the village is at the top of the mountain, and you start the day skiing downhill rather than waiting for a chairlift. If you don’t want to bring your van up to the top of the mountain, park it at the Harrietville Cabin and Caravan Park.





‘Port’, as it is locally known, is widely acknowledged as having Australia’s best climate, with mild to warm winter days and cool but never cold nights. RV access is easy, with a number of holiday parks sharing a central booking service.


Port Macquarie experiences come in many guises. Take, for example, the rainforest experience at Sea Acres.


Sea Acres Rainforest Centre is the nearest pocket of rainforest to the coast in the whole of Australia. Then, for a totally different Port experience, take a river cruise, or go camel riding along Lighthouse Beach.


A great detour if heading north from Port Macquarie is through the rainforests of Yarrahapinnie Mountain, along Tourist Drive 14. The road verges right off the main Pacific Highway just north of Barraganyatti and heads along the coast to Stuarts Point and Scotts Head, before rejoining the Pacific Highway south of Macksville.



Whale watching is a must-do for visitors to Coffs during May to October, when the big humpbacks are on their annual northward migration. The Pacific Explorer skipper Keith Rawlings kicked off the whale-watching passion in 1994, and since then has carried over 30,000 passengers, “Without losing a single one!”.


“September is the best month for whale-watching,” says Rawlings. “By that time, the whales are used to the boats, and their level of fear is much lower than earlier in the year.”


Through the hills behind Coffs, the road winds up to Bellingen and the Dorrigo Plateau, twisting and turning upon itself like an itchy snake. Exercise extreme care on the bends.


Some great back road trails out of Bellingen are also well worth exploring – such as the road via Glennifer (8km from Bellingen) to Promised Land, following the Never Never River past the homes of such celebrities as George Negus and David Helfgott.


Then take Summervilles Road up onto the Dorrigo Plateau, letting the melodious sound of whipbirds and bellbirds drown out your car stereo. Dorrigo National Park, 11km from where Summervilles Road hits the main Waterfall Road, is a spectacular World Heritage rainforest reserve. Bushwalking tracks are just waiting to be trodden.



Byron Bay, the most easterly town on the world’s most easterly continent, enjoys unique advantages. With a regional population of just 25,000 or so, the town enjoys many facilities usually found only in state capitals. Then there’s the wrap-around surf scene, with white sand, rolling-breaker beaches on three sides of the town, spotlighted by Australia’s largest still-operating lighthouse. You can find holiday parks only a hop, skip and a jump away from glorious beaches, such as Clarkes Beach Holiday Park, just down the road from the lighthouse.


Byron Bay’s beaches are outstanding – for starters, try the surfers’ favourites – Watego’s Beach or The Pass, or play it safe on Main Beach. And for a near-deserted beach strip, make a beeline for Ironbark Avenue (off the Ballina Road, about 1km south of town), then take a 10-minute stroll along a bush track through the new Arakwal National Park to Tallows Beach. Of late, locals have been complaining about Byron Bay’s increasing congestion. At holiday weekends, roads into and out of town become crammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. But such is the price of well-deserved fame.


Less than half an hour away is the coastal village of Lennox Head. Try Lake Ainsworth Holiday Park for a premium site next to the pretty lake and opposite Seven Mile Beach, perfect for a keen angler.


Further south of Lennox Head lies Ballina, a warm coastal get-away at the mouth of the Richmond River.


Ballina offers a quieter holiday experience after the pulsing pace of Bryon Bay. Ballina Lakeside Holiday Park is packed with facilities, especially great if you are travelling with kids.



Tamborine Mountain, in the Gold Coast hinterland, has a decidedly European feel. You sometimes forget you’re in Australia, with places like The Polish Place, Swedish Corner, the German Cuckoo Clock shop, Dutch Clogs restaurant and so forth lining the winding roads. Surrounding Tamborine Mountain are no fewer than seven national parks. Walk with the scrub turkeys at The Knoll NP, or just to the south of North Tamborine township walk the 3km rainforest trail at Witches Falls, Queensland’s very first national park, proclaimed in 1908.


Tamborine Mountain and the world-renowned Lamington National Park are just two features of a giant saddle that runs through the Gold Coast hinterland.


From the top of the mountain it’s just a two-minute drive to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Guest-House, gateway to Lamington National Park, Australia’s largest sweep of integrated subtropical rainforest.




There are many, many takes on the Sunshine Coast. Here are just three:



One of the best reasons to visit Kenilworth State Forest, about 30 minutes by road west of the Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Maleny, is the Charlie Moreland camping area, a little oasis of green surrounded by the Conondale Ranges. You can park your RV in a tree-shaded reserve where kangaroos graze between the gums, and take one of a number of rainforest walking trails.



Kayaking the Pumicestone Passage, at the northern end of Bribie Island, is one of life’s supreme pleasures. This remarkable island, formed from grains of Hawkesbury sandstone swept far north by sea currents, is still slowly evolving. Blue Water Kayak Tours offer a full range of custom-designed trips.



The Noosa Farmers’ Market, held every Sunday at the Noosaville AFL Ground (GPS -26.402039, 153.064626), has grown to be one of the biggest in Australia. Over a hundred vendors offer everything from goats’ cheeses to locally produced Arabica coffee in a friendly tree-shaded setting. Just 200m away, Organika (open every day) is an excellent new all-organic food emporium.



Airlie Beach is backpacker territory plus, where night becomes day. The streetscape is a jumble of tour agencies, budget hostels and Internet cafés, and locals are conspicuous by their rarity.


Until, that is, you venture off the main street. Here, fringing Airlie Harbour with its well-maintained scenic boardwalk, Airlie Lagoon is a huge landscaped pool over 4000m in area, holding over 4.5 million litres of water and floodlit at night for 24/7 swimming and poolside recreation.


Superb views over Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour can be had from the Whitsunday Great Walk trail. It is suggested by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service that three days be taken to walk the trail, but day walks are also a good option.



The winding coastal road from Cairns to Port Douglas makes for challenging towing.

The best time to tackle this road is early morning, when there are fewer vehicles on the road. On the way to Port Douglas, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures provides a great opportunity to get to know (not too closely!) crocodiles and other wildlife, including its major new attraction Gondwana Gateway.


It was the renegade businessman Christopher Skase who put Port Douglas on the map. In the aftermath of the Skase whirlwind, Port Douglas has permanently climbed up a rung or three on the status ladder. Nowadays, Macrossan Street is wall-to-wall upmarket dining, while down on the main beach the Port Douglas Surf Lifesaving Club boasts an excellent new café-restaurant.



The Mareeba district produces around 80% of Australia’s coffee crop, and the highlight of the local coffee scene is The Coffee Works incorporating Coffee World, billed as having the world’s largest collection of antique coffee-making implements and machinery.


Between Atherton and Ravenshoe, the Herberton Historic Village is an authentic re-creation of Herberton as it was in the 1870s – with everything from a classic pub to a live-in bank, shops, a schoolhouse and a unique 1929 rail ambulance.


West of Mareeba, 27km north of the town of Dimbulah, the now Heritage listed Tyrconnell Historic Gold Mine has been restored to operation. Visitors can tour the mine and learn of its quirky history, stay in style at the Tyrconnell homestead, or park an RV under the trees enjoying spectacular views of nearby Mount Mulligan.





It’s not often that you get to meet Breaker Morant, Henry Lawson, aviation pioneer Amy Bird and eye surgeon Fred Hollows all in one place. But these and many other well-known Australian characters have one thing in common.


They all share an intimate connection with the outback town of Bourke, in the far north of New South Wales.


“I actually got thanked for being a tourist at Bourke last year. They said without people like us the town would go downhill fast,” says reader Kevin.


It’s taken over 12 years and more than $7 million, but the long-awaited Back O’Bourke Exhibition Centre finally opened to the public in 2009. Telling the outback story through the lives of its colourful characters, the Centre breathes life into an ongoing stageplay.


The paddlesteamer PV Jandra also brings to life more than a century of riverboat history, offering cruises that take in some of the ever-changing sights and sounds of the Darling River.



If you’re driving from Adelaide, take the road through the Flinders Ranges and Innamincka. If from Brisbane, the Balonne Highway via Roma and St George. And from Sydney, via Dubbo and Bourke. But from whatever direction you start, the far west of Queensland contains ample surprises.


East of the thriving township of Thargomindah is the must-visit Currawinya National Park. The park has been listed under the Ramsar Convention as a wetlands site of international significance, with two large lakes (one saline and one freshwater) home to thousands of migrating birds. And one creature – the endearing little bilby – has been saved from extinction by the construction of a 20km perimeter bilby enclosure, fenced to prevent intrusion by feral predators.


West of Thargomindah, past the opal town of Eulo, you’re in Warrego River territory. Cunnamulla has two excellent holiday parks: Jack Tonkin Caravan Park and the newer Nimbinee, right on the banks of the Warrego River. It’s great to take in the Warrego by kayak at dawn and again on a river cruise in the evening, the best times of day to appreciate the astonishing variety of birdlife. Tours are organised by Out the Back Australia.



There are a number of ways to get to Alice Springs – gateway to Uluru – but the most direct (albeit the most challenging) is via Boulia and the Donohue and Plenty Highways. From Winton, the Boulia Development Road is an eyeopener.


Giant red mesas and buttes, reminiscent of the surreal landscapes of Colorado or New Mexico, thrust their rocky forms out of the plains.


However, only the most experienced RVers, preferably using an off-road van, should tackle this corrugated route. And if the Georgina River is in fl ood, the Donohue-Plenty Highway is impassable. In this case a detour of some 600km is necessary, from Boulia up to Mt Isa and then west, to join the Stuart Highway at Threeways.


For up-to-date info on road conditions call 1300 130 595 in Queensland or 1800 246 199 in the Northern Territory. From Boulia, the Alice is a mere 806km away. The Donohue-Plenty Highway has four re-fuelling and camping stops en route to Alice Springs: Tobermory Station (226km from Boulia), Jervois Station (440km), Aritjeri Store (585km) and Gemtree Caravan Park (660km).



RVers who towed vans over the rugged Gibb River Road, in the Kimberley region of NW Australia, generally report no problems. The major things to ensure are:

If possible, take an off-road van;
Lower the tyre pressure; and
Drive at a safe speed.


Nothing can prepare you for the Kimberley. The visitor to this isolated part of north-west Australia is nominally still on the Australian continent, but this is a different land. The soil is different. The sea is different – a vivid emerald green. The plants and animals are different.


Broome’s Cable Beach is justly famous. But to take in a sublime sunset, the locals all flock to Gantheaume Point, some 15km down the road from the Cable Beach Club. And some of Broome’s colourful history is captured at Pearl Luggers, an enthralling museum in the middle of town.


But Broome itself is merely a staging point for exploring some of the vast Kimberley’s hidden treasures – such as the awesome Buccaneer Archipelago with its extraordinary tidal range. Take the sealed road north to Derby, from where a number of cruise vessels – from the basic to the super-luxury, cruise the 1000 plus islands of the archipelago.




Escaping the southern cities in mid-winter is usually high on anyone’s agenda. So don’t just talk about the escape, go ahead and do it. You won’t regret dusting off the cobwebs and shaking off the winter blues with places like these to explore!

By Graham Simmons