Just two hours by car or train from Sydney, the World Heritage Greater Blue Mountains Area is home to miles of hiking trails, native wildlife, and Indigenous culture. See the rock formation of the Three Sisters from Lady Game lookout, and then head down the Giant Staircase to Honeymoon Bridge for a closer look at the first sister. Escape the crowds in Blackheath to enjoy great food and the breathtaking views of the Grose Valley from Evans Lookout. Or, if you’re up for a challenge, hike down the Golden Stairs and climb Mount Solitary for 360-degree views down the Megalong Valley.
On the western edge of the Blue Mountains, you’ll find the country town of Lithgow. Nearby, Hassan’s Walls Lookout is the highest in the Blue Mountains, offering panoramic views of the national park. An hour south, Jenolan Caves is a 24mi (40km) network of ancient limestone caves containing Silurian marine fossils and massive calcite formation. But, if you want a cave experience without the crowds, head 40 minutes north of Lithgow to the Glowworm Tunnels in Newnes Plateau.
Two hours up the coast from Sydney, the city of Newcastle is the gateway to the Hunter Valley, and is famous for its beautiful beaches. Here, it’s cheaper, nightlife is happening, beaches are quieter, and parking easier to find. Take a stroll up to Nobbys Lighthouse, established in 1858, to enjoy coastal views and to learn about the history of the land dating back to the Dreamtime.
An hour north, Port Stephens is a quiet coastal town with excellent whale watching from May through November, watersports, and fishing. For an adrenaline rush, go sandboarding at Worimi Regional Park (also known as Stockton Sand Dunes) or join a quad biking tour, owned and operated by Indigenous communities.
The oldest wine region in Australia, the Hunter Valley has more than 150 wineries just two hours from Sydney. Join a daily wine tasting tour from Sydney, or drive yourself. You don’t want to miss long-established and award-winning favorites like Hope Estate, Ben Ean, and Audrey Wilkinson Winery. Make it a weekend and head to the Upper Hunter Valley to see the picturesque thoroughbred stud farms, Hollydene Estate Wines, and Hunter Belle Cheese.
Take a scenic drive through the lower Hunter region to Wollombi, where you can stop off for lunch at the historic Wollombi Tavern. Free campsites are available if you want to turn the day trip into an overnighter. Nearby, The Watagans State Forest has quiet campgrounds and mountain biking trails.
Just over an hour south from Sydney along the Grand Pacific Drive, visit Thirroul for quiet beaches, go skydiving over Wollongong, visit Dharawal National Park to go hiking and wild swimming, go hang gliding in Stanwell Tops, Royal National Park to see migrating whales off-shore, and Budderoo National Park for a rainforest walk and a bit of birdwatching.
Nearby, Lake Illawarra is great for fishing and water sports, like sailing, waterskiing, and canoeing, and you can visit Nan Tien Temple in Berkeley. Founded in 1967 by Hsing Yun, Nan Tien Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. Yun built the temple in Berkeley due to its proximity to Mount Kembla, which is said to resemble a recumbent lion.
Kiama is a popular holiday and surfing town on the Illawarra coast. The small town features great surf beaches and the Kiama Blowhole which attracts crowds keen to see it spray water up to 82 feet (25m) in the air. Further south, between Gerroa and Shoalhaven Heads, explore Seven Mile Beach National Park for great surfing, fishing and swimming. Learn to surf on Seven Mile Beach with Surf Camp Australia in nearby Gerroa. Go wine tasting at Crooked River Winery in Gerringong and try the pastries at Gerringong Bakery.
Nearby, the country town of Berry is a popular weekend spot for Sydneysiders. The charming heritage town has good restaurants, cafes and shops, including the Berry Sourdough Bakery and Café and Leaf Thai Foods. Surrounded by wineries and pastoral land, Berry is home to the annual Shoalhaven Wine Festival in June.
Located in the Shoalhaven region of NSW, about two hours from Sydney and Canberra, Kangaroo Valley is home to lush rainforests and green pastures, perfect for a camping and bush walking. The region offers great golfing, and kayaking along the Kangaroo River with Kangaroo Valley Safaris, and has several festivals and markets throughout the year, including the lively Folk Festival every spring in October. Shop for arts and crafts, listen to folk bands from around Australia, and enjoy poet readings.
Are you thinking about starting a travel blog and you want someone other than your mother to read it? Amy Palfreyman, winner of our 2010 Travel Writing Scholarship, shares her top tips.
While a gap year is mostly about having a good time, it's also a great time to study abroad, teach, or volunteer.