Put Australia Back on the Family Bucket List

Brisbane: the economical, classic Australia family tour

By Amanda Calnan Vowels

Brisbane, Australia, isn't always on family bucket lists, but it should be.

If a multi-stop Australian trip seems out of your family’s reach, a Brisbane-based tour could be your answer. While it’s not chic Sydney, or illustrious Melbourne, Brisbane is “quintessential Australia”:

Tropical. Warm. Beachy. Sunny. Kangaroos. Koalas. Kookaburras. Palms. 

A work opportunity led our family to live this tropical corner of Australia for nearly two years. 

We operated as a typical Aussie family; with a work and school schedule during the week. Yet, each Saturday morning, we morphed into excited American tourists with one goal – hit a new surf beach, rainforest or animal park. We squeezed every bit out of our short years living Down Under.  

Here are our Australia Family Travel tips:

One-Stop Australia  

Touring between Australian landmarks typically requires several expensive, long haul flights across a massive continent. Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef, as a simple Australia itinerary, makes good economic and time sense for families. Fly into Brisbane and book a domestic flight north to Cairns (pronounced “Cans” by Aussies) to tour the Great Barrier Reef.

Within an hour of Brisbane is every Aussie highlight. To the north lies the easygoing and picturesque Sunshine Coast with small surf schools, quaint beach towns and the notorious Australia Zoo. To the south are the flashy high-rises and epic surf scenes of the Gold Coast.

Pinpointing Paradise

A proper big city of two million, Brisbane sits at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef in the state of Queensland. But the beaches - north and south of this city - really put this destination on the map. North of the city’s edge, stretches 1600 miles of tropical reef coast with outback cattle stations, coal mines, islands, dingoes, rainforests and very few people. This makes the contrasting Gold Coast, just south of Brisbane, all the more ironic with theme parks (SeaWorld, DreamWorld, MovieWorld, Wet n’ Wild) and thickly stacked skyscrapers right up to the sand.

Aussie Animals Abound

Being the third largest city, Brisbane (or Brissie, as the locals call it) is constantly playing catch-up with Sydney and Melbourne in cosmopolitan offerings. Yet, when it comes to ocean, animals and sea-life, Brisbane triumphs.

Just inland of Brisbane, along the banks of the Brisbane River, sits Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary – one of only a handful of places in Australia where you can legally cuddle a koala for a photo. The affordable Lone Pine is refreshingly non-touristy with absolutely every creature-feature on your list: dingos, platypus, koalas, kangaroos, emus, kookaburras and lizards.

The acclaimed Australia Zoo, made famous by Animal Planet’s late Steve Irwin, a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter, will not disappoint the kids one bit. Being located out of the way, north of the city, means adding the nearby Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve – a free, off-the-tourist path rainforest sanctuary - will make your drive worthwhile.

And don’t be fooled by the theme-park sounding Underwater World in small town Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast. This is a genuine, regional aquarium. If full-on tourist is what you’re after, the Australian version of SeaWorld on the Gold Coast will certainly deliver; with admission prices to match and a resort hotel on-site.

Surf and Snorkel

Any one of the beaches surrounding Brisbane will make your surf dreams come true. Surfer’s Paradise is the birthplace of the Aussie surf revolution and is steeped in surf history, but its flash can be a turn-off for some families.

Still, nearly every small beach town boasts a surf school. It’s easy and affordable to tackle the turquoise waves for the first time (about $50 for a 3 hour surf lesson). Caloundra, just north of the city, is the first genuine beach town on the Sunshine Coast. Locals flock to Dicky Beach, Moffat Beach and Kings Beach around Caloundra, but Bulcock Beach is the hot-spot for families. It’s safe ocean swimming with little ones and has surf or paddleboard lessons for all ages.

If snorkeling is more your family’s pace, hit-up tropical Tangalooma Resort on sleepy, but stunning, Moreton Island for genuine reef dives and daily wild dolphin feeds. The trip is a short ferry ride from Brisbane. Many claim the sea-life here is very close to that of the infamous Great Barrier Reef without the added cost and extra flights for families.

Budget Dining: the art of the "Aussie Picnic"

All our weekend touring required a tight budget for a family of four. Being local meant we could root out deals and avoid tourist traps. Prices are high all over Australia. There’s no two ways about it. And, while dining out for Australian families may not be as common as in the U.S., the charm and necessity of picnicking has been elevated to an art in this country. Most American families can easily throw together the most primitive picnics to keep costs down. And almost every single public beach has - not only outdoor beach showers - but lovely, free gas barbecue grills, water faucets and well-kept amenities for outdoor meal prep.

If You Go:

  • When to Go: April/May or October/November are great months to visit Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef. This avoids a very hot – and often rainy – Queensland from December through March and the sometimes-chilly winter, June through September. Up north, the Great Barrier Reef is tropical year-round, but can be ideal June through September. If snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is on your itinerary, note that jellyfish stinger season runs November through June. A full-body stinger suit is provided by most tours to protect you.

  • Tops on Travel Lists: Buoyed by a recent influx of young and global expats. In December, Lonely Planet named Brisbane “Australia’s Hippest City.”

  • Young Families: You can’t go wrong with Brisbane’s climate and kid-focus. Nearly every single beach and city park boasts a fantastic play structure, outdoor shower, free and clean gas BBQs and clean bathroom facilities. 

    The animal parks public playgrounds and the beaches are truly kid-centric. Expect larger-than-life playgrounds, children’s surf lessons, daily animal and insect encounter, picnics and family focused tourism.

  • Pack: A small soft-sided cooler in your luggage or as extra baggage will serve you well. They are expensive in Oz. Also, bring an insulated water bottle, sunscreen/broad brimmed hats and buy or pack a small beach umbrella. The sun is brutal.