‘I love a sunburnt country’: A post-pandemic return to Australia

‘It was worth the wait to finally see this coastline ... this extraordinary seascape’

In 1996 I spent a few months working in Doyle’s of Watsons Bay, one of Sydney’s most scenic restaurants with views across the city’s iconic harbour. I slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Bondi, and before long I’d saved up enough money to buy a bus ticket to take me across much of Australia’s wide brown land. I partook, a little too enthusiastically, in the world class wines at the Hunter Valley, bombed along Fraser Island’s 75-mile beach, dived with sharks at the Grand Barrier Reef and watched the multicoloured transformation of Uluru at sunset. Somehow I never made it to Melbourne.

Ten years later I married a woman who hails from this city. Since then, we have flown across the world every year to visit family and friends, and holiday in the Victorian state capital and surrounding countryside. The Great Ocean Road begins an hour outside Melbourne, twisting and turning for 234 breathtaking kilometres before culminating at the famed 12 Apostles near Port Campbell. We had tried on several occasions to get to these crowd-drawing sea stacks, but lobster lunches at the Fishermen’s Co-Op in Apollo Bay and the waterfalls of the ancient Otway rainforest repeatedly distracted us from our final destination.

When Covid-19 hit and our journeys to the Antipodes were put on hold, I promised myself if we ever managed to return to Australia, I would make it to the 12 Apostles and the end of the Great Ocean Road.

Following the longest lockdown in the world, Melbourne reopened to visitors in February. Within hours we were looking up flights. A few weeks later, not even the 5am Dublin Airport queues could curtail our excitement, amplified considerably when Darren at the Etihad desk offered us the holy grail of long-haul travel: an upgrade to Business Class. It’s taken me three decades of flying around the world to finally turn left.


A bellini appeared after take-off followed by Arabic mezze and sea bream, served on a fancy linen tablecloth. Gazing out my three windows at the snowy Turkish mountains, I realised my career might also need an upgrade, if I am to continue flying in such style.

Despite multiple connections at Abu Dhabi over the years we’d never left the airport. To celebrate our return to travel, we ventured 15 minutes down the road to the newly opened Warner Bros Hotel at Yas Island (doubles from €199, hilton.com) for a 24-hour stopover. The hotel is stuffed with a fascinating collection of movie props, posters and memorabilia, including the latest iteration of the Batmobile parked outside reception. We just about stopped ourselves from climbing into the Friends fountain in the forecourt to recreate the opening sequence of the 90s sitcom, which was tempting given the temperature was in the high 30s.

The next morning was spent at the Warner Bros World theme park a short walk from the hotel, followed by an afternoon of rip-roaring waterslides at nearby Yas Waterworld. We all jetted off to Melbourne that night much more relaxed than we would usually be attempting the 26-hour journey without a break.

Melbourne has more coffee shops than any other city in the world. Italian immigrants fleeing postwar Europe cleverly thought to pack their espresso machines and kindled a love of coffee among Melburnians that endures today. The day we landed in the city, the front pages of the newspapers were concerned with the fact that a cup of coffee was about to exceed $5 for the first time. We raced across town before the prices shot up to Patricia on Little Bourke Street for a flat white so good, it was the essence of Melbourne in a cup.

It was still early and we beat the crowds to the Queen Victoria Market as the abundance of Australia’s food industry was being laid out by stall holders. The bounty of tropical fruits that grows in these climes is astonishing; one of my favourite rituals on holidays here is to bite into a luscious, sun-ripened peach that never tastes as good in the northern hemisphere.

Another ritual is a swim in the Southern Ocean but this time we were lured instead to the first floor of the brand new Movenpick Hotel (doubles from €179, movenpick.com) in the heart of the central business district for a dip in their open-air pool overlooking Southern Cross Station and the vertiginous Melbourne skyline. The city has the largest tram network in the world, and post-swim the 86 tram swept us along Bourke Street to Collingwood for a vegan lunch at Smith and Daughters. Nearby Smith Street was voted the coolest street in the world last year, and it certainly lived up to the hype as we ambled along, passing plant shops and vintage stores on our way to Gertrude Street, our favourite street in Melbourne.

Melbourne’s city centre comes alive as night falls, and we joined the throngs of beautifully dressed people snaking into Supernormal on Flinders Lane for cocktails in the seductive pop-up basement bar. Melbourne’s coffee story goes hand in hand with an equally obsessive and brilliant food culture. That night it felt like the whole city was out enjoying dinner. Our Japanese feast at thumping, party-like Yakimono off Collins Street helped erase any lingering malaise from being stuck at home every night for the previous two and a half years. Travel truly is good for the soul, and it felt amazing to be out having fun in a big, far away city again.

After a few days spent visiting family and friends, we picked up our Avis rental car and the city soon gave way to sweeping plains and long lines of gum trees with their pom-pom foliage. We took a circuitous route via Daylesford, a 19th century spa town in the wooded foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Following a soak at Hepburn Springs and some local spa water tastings, we secured a last minute table for lunch at the Lakehouse, one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurants – David Sedaris’s excellent short story, Laugh, Kookaburra, is set here. I passed on the kangaroo carpaccio and opted instead for Southern Ocean oysters and multiple plates of regional delicacies.

I grew up in the 1980s watching A Country Practice. A field of horses on the road south to Geelong transported me back to that gentle TV show’s opening credits, with Dr Harry rounding up cattle on horseback. As a child, my impressions of the beauty of Australia’s countryside were informed by this show, so to be driving through that very landscape brought a huge wave of nostalgia.

Nearing the Great Ocean Road we stopped at Bambra to visit Blair’s Vineyard and nearby Pondalowie for a tasting. We said a brief hello to the kangaroos that take over the fairways of Anglesea Golf Course before pulling into nearby Lorne at dusk, just in time to trek through the rainforest to marvel at the 130m high Erskine Falls.

We followed the coast to Apollo Bay the next morning and onwards through lush forests of giant tree ferns, until the buzzing of sightseeing helicopters heralded that we were nearing the elusive 12 Apostles. It was worth the wait to finally see this coastline. The pummelling wind, straight from Antarctica, dispelled any leftover lockdown angst. The endless views of limestone cliffs and the seven remaining sea stacks brought to mind the countless immigrant ships from Ireland that would have battled these perilous waters. This extraordinary seascape must have been a balm to the returned soldiers who built this famous road in the aftermath of the first World War.

Dragging ourselves away, some signposts a few kilometres further west led us to London Arch, Loch Ard Gorge, the Grotto and the Gibson Steps. I hadn’t done my research and it turns out that Port Campbell National Park is full of sculptural wonders hewn over thousands of years into the malleable rock of the coastline.

That night, in the beer garden of the nearby Port Campbell Hotel, I watched a large Australian family sharing dinner at the next table, and I wondered what my life would have been like if I had never left this beautiful country all those years ago.

We spent another week continuing to Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Tower Hill, Colac and Geelong before our flight back to Dublin. The words of Dorothea Mackellar’s 1908 poem have stayed with me for nearly three decades and they ringed in my ear again: “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel- sea, Her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me!”

Fergal McCarthy was a guest of Etihad, which operates daily departures from Dublin to Melbourne, via Abu Dhabi, with fares from €1,557. Etihad.com