English writer D.H. Lawrence once said, "You feel free in Australia. There is great relief in the atmosphere -- a relief from tension, from pressure, an absence of control of will or form. The skies open above you and the areas open around you."
What better reasons do you need to explore the world's largest island? With enthusiastic tour guides and shore excursions ranging from wine tasting on horseback to underground caving adventures and a multi-night extravaganza that includes Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), there is never a dull moment Down Under. The following tours offer a quintessential slice of Australia with a twist.
The Red Centre Overland
Hold onto your hats (and your wallet) as this high-end tour takes you deep into the heart of Australia and beyond in just 48 hours with multiple flights and multiple sights you will never forget.
Your Red Centre adventure begins with an early morning flight from Sydney to Uluru and a tour of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), a group of 36 domed rocks that are sacred to the Anangu people, the traditional owners of the land. Most visitors tend to focus on Uluru but Mt Olga, the largest of the rocks, is nearly 200 metres higher. Finish the day watching that famous Uluru sunset with a glass of bubbles in hand, followed by dinner at Ilkari restaurant at the upmarket Sails in the Desert hotel.
One of the most important Anangu creation stories comes alive the next morning as a guide shares the legend of Liru (the snake) and Kuniya (the python). After lunch you will fly to Cairns for a cultural experience of a different kind. Tjapukai is an Aboriginal cultural centre that offers an entertaining evening show with a didgeridoo blessing ceremony, fire performance and cultural dance show. If you're game, you can even take to the stage yourself.
The next morning you are up early for a tour around Cairns and a 7.5km journey above World Heritage-listed rainforest on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. There is time to hop off at various points to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Australian bush before the flight back to Brisbane, where you rejoin the cruise and get to enjoy a well-earned rest.
Who Should Go: Those who don't think a trip to Australia would be complete without seeing Uluru.
Why: This tour packs in a number of 'must-sees' in a very short space of time. While most Aussies would say you are 'mad as a cut snake' to fly to Uluru for just 24 hours, this spiritually significant destination is well worth the trip.
Darwin Sights and Crocodiles
You get crocodiles with a side order of culture on this Darwin tour, which offers a fascinating blend of Aboriginal art, local history and snapping jaws.
First stop is the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which is best known for two things: an extensive indigenous art collection and Sweetheart, a 5-metre crocodile with a story to tell. The museum also pays homage to Cyclone Tracy, which devastated much of the original city on Christmas Eve 1974. An original audio recording of the tortured screech of tearing metal and banshee-like screams of the wind plays on a continuous loop in a pitch-black room. This will make your toes curl and is the closest you want to get to actually experiencing a cyclone.
After exploring the museum, there is a 10-minute drive to Crocodylus Cove where, unlike Sweetheart, the crocodiles are very much alive. Seeing a huge croc launch itself high above the water to grab a piece of meat during the feeding presentation will leave you in awe. Pay close attention to those 'No Swimming: Crocodiles' signs you see around the Darwin foreshore.
Who Should Go: Those who want to experience many different aspects of the Top End in one trip.
Why: This tour offers an interesting twist on a quintessential Northern Territory experience. If you enjoy shopping for souvenirs, the Museum & Art Gallery store is filled with tasteful gifts.
Exclusive Frankland Islands
If you want to explore the Great Barrier Reef, this is the equivalent of being let through an exclusive back door. A snorkelling excursion to the Frankland Islands skips the long boat ride to an open water pontoon in favour of a picturesque drive past rainforest-clad mountains and a scenic cruise up the Mulgrave River. A 20-minute ocean crossing to Normanby Island follows the cruise. (Normanby Island is one of five islands that make up the Frankland Islands group.)
On Normanby, you can spend the day with a marine biologist exploring the island's forests, beaches and surrounding reef and snorkelling with turtles, coral and tropical fish. If you want to see the reef but would prefer to stay dry, there is a semi-submersible tour available at no extra charge. Squeeze in another swim after a buffet lunch on the beach before the return trip to Cairns.
Who Should Go: Anyone who wants to see the Great Barrier Reef and is prone to seasickness. Most other tours head out to an open water pontoon which takes two hours each way.
Why: You get to experience the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef without a potentially uncomfortable boat ride. Snorkelling off the beach is easier for those who are new to the wonders of the underwater world, too.
Horseback Ride through Wine Country & Wine Tasting
Beautiful horses are the stars of the show on this tour. After a coach trip packed with views of the Mornington Peninsula's dramatic cliffs, sheltered coves and pristine beaches, you'll be greeted by an experienced riding instructor who will introduce you to your horse and conduct a riding and safety demonstration.
Whether you are an experienced rider or a complete novice, there is a horse to suit and plenty of encouragement for those who need it. You will get to experience an excellent network of equestrian trails, along with a few jaunts through pretty private farmland. All up, you spend about three hours in the saddle, but there is a delicious break for wine tasting and lunch at T'Gallant, one of Australia's best-known wineries.
After lunch, it's time to ride back to the stables where everyone hugs their horse (trust me, you'll do it, too) and boards a coach for another picturesque wine tasting on the way back to the ship in Melbourne.
Who Should Go: Wine lovers, horse lovers and those who aren't fond of spending a full day on a bus. You don't need to be an experienced rider or oenologist to enjoy this scenic tour.
Why: It is a rare treat to explore a wine region using such a unique mode of transport.
Ultimate Caving -- Ancient Riverbed Tour
Margaret River might be famous for wine, but it is also home to some of Australia's most impressive underground caves. This adventurous tour begins rather sedately with a stroll along a boardwalk to view the stunning stalactite, stalagmite, helictites and shawl formations of Ngilgi Cave. After you visit the shimmering white Mother of Pearl Shawl, the equally stunning Arab's Tent and Oriental Shawl, the tour delves deeper into the cave.
Before you've got time to say 'this tunnel is getting mighty small', you will be on your hands and knees, winding and crawling your way along the red, sandy soil of an ancient riverbed. Some of the most beautiful formations and cave decorations are found in this part of the cave. When the guide turns off the lights for a few moments, the silence is eerily beautiful.
Who Should Go: Adventurous travellers who are physically fit and not prone to claustrophobia. If you are travelling with kids over the age of 10, this is a great family excursion.
Why: Bragging rights when you get back to the ship. Your children will also be eternally grateful you didn't drag them around endless wineries.