But it wasn’t just the wildlife getting me excited. I had become a tourist in my own country by making sure my trip — originally planned to visit friends and family — was also a holiday. Here’s how to make the most of Australia — whether you’re a local or a first-time visitor.
Step one: Do something different
Ramp up your excitement level by getting out of your home city or town (in my case Sydney) and going some place where you can see or do something unforgettable.
For first-timers, it’s about making sure you don’t spend your entire holiday in the city — Australia is a big country so get out and see some of it.
We chose Phillip Island, which is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of fairy penguins and offers a charming slice of Australia’s natural world.
Just a 90-minute drive south-east of Melbourne, Phillip Island is joined to the mainland by a bridge at San Remo and makes an excellent holiday-at-home choice because it’s easy to get to, and packs a punch on the Aussie flora and fauna meter.
Throw in some thumping surf beaches, a laid-back vibe and affordable accommodation and restaurants, and you’ve got a winner for a night, weekend or week’s stay.
Step two: Find the wow factor
Make sure you spend an evening on Summerland Beach with Phillip Island’s main attraction — the fairy penguins.
Pitch up just before dusk, wrap up warm (even in summer it can be chilly) and follow the rangers down to the beach where you’ll be seated in a concrete grandstand.
From here you’ll have a clear view of all the action taking place on the sand.
Be patient, because just as darkness arrives, you’ll spot the silvery blue penguins gathering at the water’s edge.
Watch in awe as they psyche themselves up to make a bashful and courageous dash up the beach and into their safe dune burrows. Afterwards, you can watch them socialise from boardwalks positioned on stilts above the burrows.
Step three: See cute critters
Phillip Island isn’t just about the penguin parade (although the little blue and white fellas are pretty damn wonderful) — it’s also a full-on nature park.
Visit The Nobbies headland to see some of the 20,000-strong fur seal colony at Seal Rocks.
There’s also the Koala Conservation Centre where boardwalks take you into the eucalyptus trees and bring you almost face-to-face with these wonderful slothful marsupials (which are, it’s fair to say, often underrated by Australians).
Meanwhile, wallabies, echidnas, bats and birds roam free inside the island’s woodland — one of the centre’s conservation areas.
Phillip Island is also home to the V8 Supercars Phillip 500 race every September. If you’re more interested in seeing the wildlife, avoid race weekends.
Step four: Road trip heaven.
Find a car, some mates, a charged iPod and a map or two.
Throw in some of the most breathtaking scenery the world has to offer and you’ve got the recipe for a holiday that’s likely to leave you wondering why it took so long to explore your own backyard.
Since we were already in Victoria we opted for the legendary Great Ocean Road — a spectacular 273km stretch between Torquay and Warrnambool on the south-western coast of Victoria.
It’s easily accessible by car from Melbourne and you could see the highlights in a day if you really wanted to — although you’ll do and see more if you allow at least three days.
Step five: Seek out scenery
Where to start? There’s a reason this coastline is considered one of the best in the world.
The winding, at times vertiginous, road between Lorne and Apollo Bay boasts dramatic cliffs and sandy white beaches.
Bells Beach, home to the famous pro-surfing competition, is down this way too, so wax monkeys can have their own fun.
The stretch from Apollo Bay to Port Campbell is where you’ll find the jaw-dropping 12 Apostles — naturally occurring rock stacks that rise out of the wild Southern Ocean, braving the fierce winds like beacons.
This area is also known as ‘shipwreck coast’, and nowhere quite brings its rugged danger to life like the poignant Loch Ard Gorge — so named because it was the watery grave of all but two passengers and crew aboard the ship Loch Ard, which ran aground off the coast in 1878, just before it was to reach the end of its three-month journey from England to Melbourne.
Step six: Fresh air frenzy
Use Apollo Bay as a base to explore the other sites on what’s known as the Bellarine Peninsula, including the whimsical Spit Point lighthouse at Airey’s Inlet, made famous in cult children’s
TV show Round The Twist.
On the other side of Apollo Bay, make your way to Cape Otway, remembering to look out for koalas (a local helpfully told us they looked exactly like grey rocks in trees), and then to the Cape Otway lighthouse — mainland Australia’s oldest — for stunning views of the coastline and insight into the area’s maritime past.
Apollo Bay is also the perfect jumping off point to explore Otway Rainforest.
Stop at Mait’s Rest for a short bush walk to get you warmed up before attempting the breathtaking Triplet Falls walk through pristine rainforest.
Hopetoun Falls, for which you’ll have to brave a winding single lane dirt track (shared with logging trucks, no less), will reward you with views of the roaring water as it pounds into the Aire River.
Continue down the steep path to the valley floor and pass through a glade of tree ferns into the thick of the action at the foot of the falls.
Once you get there, sit down and unwind for half an hour — you’re guaranteed to feel like you’re on holiday, whether you’re miles away from home or not.
» Samantha Baden stayed in Youth Hostel Association hostels throughout Victoria.
Within Cooee of the Big Smoke
Don’t have time to take a week out of your trip? Then spend a day or two having a holiday at home (or someone else’s home if you’re not a native) by visiting these favourites near the city.
Darwin: Litchfield National Park
At Litchfield, get a taste of the Top End’s flora and fauna without the need for a 4WD or the planning of a trip to Kakadu.
Expect splashing in creeks (but beware of crocs!) and waterfall watching in the shadow of the Tabletop Range. Plus it’s just 100km from Darwin — which is right next door in territory terms.
Sydney: Blue Mountains
The grey-blue haze created by all those oily gum trees gives this region its name.
Just two hours by train from Sydney, the Blue Mountains will whisk you away into a world of art galleries, tea shops and breathtaking scenery.
There’s accommodation for every budget and the opportunity to walk through the stunning Jamieson Valley.
Canberra: Mount Kosciuszko and the Snowy Mountains
OK, so the Snowy Mountain resorts might not compare too favourably with the Alps when it comes to carving up the white stuff, but this region still makes a great break whatever the season.
In summer, when the snow machines aren’t working, the area is ideal for bushwalking, mountain biking and even white water rafting. And it’s just two and a half hours from Canberra.
If you like to share your beaches with bottlenose dolphins, then Dunsborough, three hours’ drive from Perth, is a winning weekend getaway.
What’s more, you can throw in secluded coves, a pretty seaside town and being within striking distance of the celebrated Margaret River wine region.
Brisbane: Moreton Island
Just a ferry ride from Brisbane, sandy Moreton Island is less crowded than its neighbour North Stradbroke, and a bit more rough and ready.
But it’s perfect if you’re looking for a camping holiday where you can go sand driving, scuba-diving (at the Tangalooma wrecks) or meet some dolphins.
Hobart: Freycinet Peninsula
Two hours from Hobart is the glorious Freycinet National Park, where you can test yourself on the strenuous but rewarding walk up to the Wineglass Bay lookout, before continuing down to the beach — a contender, Tassie people say, for the best beach in the country award.
Adelaide: Barossa Valley
If a couple of days touring the wineries in the Barossa Valley doesn’t revive your weary London self, then, frankly, you’re probably for the scrapheap.
Settled by German Lutherans in the 1840s, the Barossa is just an hour out of Adelaide and is now Australia’s largest premium wine producer, meaning the atmosphere won’t be the only thing you’ll want to drink up.