Visiting Australia for the First Time… Suggestions?

I have a quick trip planned to Australia with a couple of friends in August. I have never been there before, and neither have my two friends. I’ve started to do some research on hotels to stay in/things to do/places to eat — but since I’m currently biking across the US, my research time is very limited right now. So, I am coming to you asking for suggestions!


My friends and I are flying into Brisbane, and plan to spend a day or two there and then head north to Cairns for 3 or 4 days. Because of the length of our trip, I don’t think that we can add any other cities to the list this time around (but I will definitely be back to check out Sydney!).


Hotel wise, I have status with Priority Club, Hilton, and Club Carlson. I am planning to do a status challenge with Marriott before that time, so I should have status with them as well. I also don’t mind spending money at Starwood properties because I like their points (and hopefully I will have status with them in the near future). From my basic research, it seems that there is a Sheraton, Hilton, and Marriott in or near Brisbane, and a Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and Hilton in Cairns. Thoughts on these hotels?


We also had talked about renting a boat for a day and maybe night? Does anyone have any experience doing that?


In Cairns we are planning to rent a car. How trippy is it to drive on the other side of the road? I’m kind of excited to have a go at it!


As for activities, scuba/snorkeling is definitely a must. Have you had a good experience with a dive shop near Cairns and want to recommend them?


Any ideas/comments/tips are greatly appreciated!


  1. I’ve been to Australia numerous times; absolutely love it. Sydney is marvelous, Melbourne is very nice, and Cairns leaves a lot to be desired (unless you are really into diving, which it sounds like you are).

    I stayed at the Hilton in Cairns and found it very wanting. The staff was nice, but the hotel had some pretty bad bug issues (in the tropics, that comes with the territory). The town itself is very uninspired; no scenery, no beach (mud flats), and the restaurants were rather lack luster. I did enjoy seeing the stained glass windows of the local Catholic church; they told the story of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Also some lovely windows depicting the animals native to Australia.

    We did go diving, and I really liked the company we used. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name (sorry!). There are dive shops EVERYWHERE; I’m sure you can get some good recommendations.

    I didn’t drive and wouldn’t want to. Good luck with that!

    Very hard not to have a great time in Australia; you’ll be plotting your return before this trip is even half-way through.

  2. I went to New Zealand a few years back and drove everywhere. From the US, it was a bit odd but you get used to it really quickly. You sit on the other side of the car, so you wouldn’t accidently start driving on the right side suddenly as if you are in the US. I had a habit of hugging the left part of the lane for some reason as the perspective was a bit different sitting on the right side vs sitting on the left side. Another issue would be manual shifting, which is odd as you will be shifting with your other arm. I would recommend getting an automatic if you guys can afford it as it is a bit more expensive and if there are lots of hills. Remember that the turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. When i came back to the US, everytime i turned my windshield wipers would go off.

    One thing to look up is credit card insurance coverage in Australia (many i believe do not cover Aus/NZ) and also where in Australia has the highest accident rates. In NZ there were giant signs warning about the high accident (fatality) rate on the highway between Auckland and Hamilton and it was also in our travel guide as well.

    Below was a good overview of driving in Australia.

    1. I prefer to drive manual usually, but it would definitely add another thing to think about. Thanks for the insight on driving!

  3. Cairns is a party town, not so much of a swank hotel location. Definitely go for a hostel. Don’t get a car unless you want to head north and see some of the swank houses, and go to wineries. You might have time to head to Daintree. Try not to get stuck though.

    If you were hardcore, you’d squeeze in a scuba certification / liveaboard, but it’ll be tight in your timeframe. Instead, you could opt for a shorter liveaboard and still get some of the experience snorkeling and you should also be able to swing a “discovery/introductory” dive.

    For scuba, I’d recommend this outfit (it’s #2 in Cairns, professional and a good value IMO): They do liveaboards for snorkelers too, but not sure it’s worth the cost without a dive. Us Dollar has a 10% lead on AUD at the moment. Certifying is by far the best value though, and you’ll never be in better conditions.

    In Brisbane, for hostels, I’d recommend Great location, but not in main CBD area. That said, Brizzy is a more reasonable place to stay in a hotel (if you don’t want to meet people). There’s not a real beach, but there is a fake one on the river and it’s easy to get to. If there’s a footy game, you should attend. There’s a stadium in Gabba and near another one near Benders. Also near Benders is a comedy club. It’s not nearly as funny as in the states, but it can be great. Outside Brisbane is Gold Coast (a beach, and a bit cold in August), and a Zoo where you can get pictures with Koalas. IMO, you shouldn’t need a rental car unless you want to do those things.

    1. I would say that wine is a must 🙂 One of my friends going and myself are both PADI certified already, but my other friend isn’t and isn’t sure that he wants to be. I would love to do a liveaboard… so hopefully we can fit that in! Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. I stayed at the Hilton Cairns years ago. There are plenty of boats nearby which will take you out to the Great Barrier Reef. I forgot which one I used, but I am not sure you can go wrong — especially if you ask the concierge at the hotel for some recommendations. A light lunch and soft drinks were included, and they provide scuba gear. I truly enjoyed it.

  5. I was in Australia 15 years ago, and took a 3-dive day trip to the reef with Poseidon. I just googled the company to see if they still operate (didn’t immediately come up), and came across The site lets you compare various dive options. I did a search for “Cairns” and “1 day,” and it returned 8 different options. Hope that helps!

  6. Aha! Poseidon’s website: They operate out of Port Douglas, but they’ll transfer you up to PD for a fee. I remember it was a nice boat, the dive master gave us a great orientation to the fish we’d see on the reef, and we were served tea and cookies between dives. Looks like they still do the tea/sweets snacks and reef interpretation talk.

    I also remember one of my classmates had a panic attack just after jumping into the water for the first time, and the crew pulled her up and comforted her while the rest of us went diving. At dive site #2, one of the crew got in the water to help her get comfortable snorkelling, and at dive site #3 one of them acted as her buddy as she finally got to experience diving. It started out as a very bad day for her, but thanks to the staff it ended very well.

    Full disclosure — that was my first open water dive trip, and I’ve only been on one other since then. Not sure if this is the typical experience, but it left me impressed.

    1. Thanks for the website! I will definitely check them out. I think we are going to rent a car, so we would just be able to head up there on our own.

  7. I live in Brisbane but I am also American so I am very used to switching back and forth between driving on the left or right as the case may be. We are headed to Central America in Aug but if you come in early Aug and would like to go for coffee or something send me an email. Brisbane is a great city to live in but not the most exciting place for tourists. I don’t like theme parks so rarely go to the Gold Coast but I do love the hinterland for bird watching. The sunshine coast is more laid back, if you are a beach person I’d say go there to relax or Gold Coast to party. Daintree is amazing! Kuranda is a lovely little town in the mountains near Cairns and there is a nice bird park there. The last time I was there was in the 90’s when I was single and a backpacker and the hostel scene is excellent up there! I did Mike Ball liveaboard diving in the late 90’s, it was great then and I see no reason why they wouldn’t still be great. Shopping compared to the USA for clothes is pretty bad, plus you are 2 sizes more in Australia (example US 12 = Australian 14). I tend to wait until a USA trip to do major shopping so I wish the AUD would get back up there!

    1. Wonderful! Thanks for the reply. I will look into Bike Ball liveaboards too. Email coming your way 🙂

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