A Complete Guide to Sri Lanka During Off-Season

Why Sri Lanka is Amazing

Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.

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Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:

  • Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.

  • Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!

  • If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.

  • AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted. 

  • Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.



Our Travel Plan

Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).

Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:



Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.

Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.

Train from Colombo to Kandy.

Train from Kandy to Ella.

Care hire for three days:

    Ella to Sigiriya

    Around Sigiriya and its attractions

    Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi


We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient. 


Colombo/Negundi

Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.

Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.



The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella

Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.

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The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.

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Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!

Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season. 

Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.

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Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.

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The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.

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Ella

Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.

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You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.

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If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock

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While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.


Cooking Class

Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!

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After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.

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Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.

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Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast! 

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Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya

We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.

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Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!

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Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.

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It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.

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The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.

Sigiriya

There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.

We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!

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Dambulla Cave Temple

There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.

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Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.

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Lion’s Rock

Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.

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Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.

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Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.

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Elephant Safari

Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.

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There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.

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Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.

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Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!

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Yogyakarta: an Exciting Alternative to Jakarta

Getting to Yogyakarta

Coming from Denpasar, Bali, we flew into the Yogyakarta regional airport. The airport is an hour’s drive from the main downtown area, so contact your accommodation to arrange for pickup when you land. There’s also a railway connecting most main cities between Yogyakarta and Jakarta. We took the train out of town, and it took about eight hours to get to Jakarta.

We stayed four nights at a hostel called Ostic House, and we cannot recommend them enough. They offer beautiful dorm rooms for cheap. They’re very clean, the beds are pretty big, and you have plenty of room in the dorms.

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The downstairs hangout area is super welcoming with bean bag chairs, a big couch, a long family dining table, a zen outdoor patio, and even a TV for those football games you just can’t miss. The walls are happily decorated with colorful murals and positive vibes, only to be out-shined by the smiling faces of the amazing staff. They even make you an authentic Javanese breakfast every morning - not just toasted white bread!

Things to do in Yogyakarta

If Jakarta is the commercial, corporate city of Indonesia, think of Yogyakarta as the cultural, artsy sibling. The city’s main area is called the sultan’s palace, where you can find a couple of fun things to fill your day with. 

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We spent a whole afternoon wandering around the Malioboro market. You can find anything from street meats and local vegetables to cheap Louis Vuitons and colorful t-shirts. Grab a snack at one of the sidewalk stalls, or work your way through the maze of textiles for an adventure among the merchants. On your way back, stop at the Alun-Alun park to have your hand with fate. They say that if you can walk straight between the two banyan trees with your eyes closed, you will have good luck and prosperity in the future.

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The Water Temple

The Water Temple is a magnificent playground to stroll around among soft hues of pinks and blues. Just try not to get swindled into a tour once you get there - many of the “guides” have fake badges and are not authentic staff of the temple.

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The King built the temple for his children and wives to cool off in, but make sure you go through the building to the back to see the King’s private pool. He made it to enjoy with one of his wives when he was really feeling the heat ;) 

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The Underground Mosque

The Underground Mosque is another unmissable attraction of Yogyakarta. Keep walking through the charming alleyways after the Water Temple - you may have to ask for directions, the entrance is not so obvious.

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Descend down to the dark passageway and enter the lower level of the mosque. Climb any of the four stairways up to the landing for an epic shot in the middle of the mosque. Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait in line for a solo pic.

Around Yogyakarta

Surrounding the city, you’ll find the awe-inspiring cultural experiences that draw people to Yogyakarta: Prahmbanan and Borobudur… and the Chicken Church, kind of.. There are a couple options for organizing your trip to go see these places. 

If you’ve looked up Borobudur online, you’ve probably seen photos of the pink morning sun rising over the hazy stoopas. Keep in mind that it takes almost two hours to get to Borobudur, so if you want to see it at sunrise, you’ll be leaving around 4am. Prambanan is also about 2 hours from downtown Yogyakarta. Being that both places are so far away, riding a scooter might be a bit uncomfortable, and arguably a bit unsafe.

Our hostel organized a private car rental for us. We split the cost for a driver between 5 people. We had 12 hours to adventure the surroundings of Yogyakarta, which ended up being just the right amount of time to see Borobudur for sunrise, the Chicken Church on the way out, and Prambahnan for a late lunch. By the end of it all, 12 hours was more than enough. We could’ve spent more time at either Borobudur or Prambahnan, so if you’re keen on digging deep into the Hindu and Buddhist cultures in either location, it may be worth spending a full day at each.

Sunrise at Borobudur

The Hill is where you’ll go to watch the sunrise if you buy the ticket bundle. It only takes 5-10 minutes to climb up to the platform, but it is pretty steep. At the top, you’ll find a handful of other tourists patiently awaiting the sunrise. It’s likely that the fog will be too dense to see the actual sun, but the lighting softly illuminates the clouds rolling around the hills, making for a stunning landscape. 

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The temple is actually pretty far away, so make sure to bring a strong zoom lens if you want to capture it. There are also some set-ups for cute pictures along the edge of the platform. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of room at the top for you yogis to get your vinyasa on.

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Chicken Church

On your way down from The Hill, you can opt for a stop at the Chicken Church - a church shaped like a chicken, believe it or not. The hike up there is short but steep, making for a stellar view from the very top of the chicken. Take note of the anti-drug images on the inside of the chicken’s head.

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Included with your entry ticket is a free breakfast! Go to outdoor patio at the back of the church  for a cone of delicious fried potatoes. The flakey bites are perfect for a post-sunrise snack.

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Stupas of Borobudur

The grounds of Borobudur are pretty big, so you have the option to rent some bicycles or take a little tram to the base of the temple. Otherwise, it’s a short 5-10 minute walk from the entrance.

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There will be plenty of guides offering to walk you through each level of the temple for a reasonable price. Lucky for us, a couple of local students offered us a free tour to practice speaking English. Even without guides, be sure to wander around a few of the lower levels to appreciate the ancient stonework along each tier.

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Prambanan 

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The grounds of Prahmbanan are like an Indonesian amusement park with a beautiful Hindu temple section. There are tons of activities to fill your afternoon with if you’re all templed-out. Have your hand at the archery station, or take a horse ride through one of the sandy rinks. 

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Otherwise, you could spent plenty of time getting lost among the crumbling rock piles around Prambanan temple. Hop up the steps into the cold dark rooms to contemplate life, or just gaze up towards the peaks in the sky.

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Digs in Yogya

  • SS (Special Sambal) - for the most authentic Javanese experience of your life, sit at one of the low tables and get your fingers dirty with family-style dining - the first order of rice is free!

  • Yam Yam - classically delicious Thai food with a pretty open-air dining area - number one restaurant on TripAdvisor!

  • Move On Gelato - just some really great gelato with a cool mural on the wall.

If you do go to Jakarta

Head up to Kota, the old Dutch quarter, for some beautiful streets and lunch spots! The colonial architecture will give you a glimpse into the past of what Jakarta used to look like.

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The picturesque square is the perfect place to hop on a neon bicycle and glide around. We had lunch at Cafe Batavia, seated next to the big shuttered windows with a beautiful view of the square. It’s a great place to enjoy both local Javanese cuisine and homey western options while taking in the bustling scene below.

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More Pictures!

Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island is an exceptionally unique part of Australia’s east coast, and is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts! The small island is under formal conservation as Magnetic Island National Park, which means that all the flora and fauna on the island is under protection. Additionally, the island lays within the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which itself is listed as a World Heritage site! Double whammy!

Getting to Magnetic Island

As part of our Loka passes, our trains, buses, and ferries were booked ahead of time. You take the Queensland Rail into Townsville, a local bus to the ferry port, and the Sealink Ferry to Magnetic Island! Once you’re on the island, just ask someone at the port which local bus to hop on for transfer to your accommodation.

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Before you leave the mainland, stock up on groceries and booze. Everything is more expensive on the island. Otherwise, the mojitos at the Island Bar are pretty rad.

Where to Stay

You have a ton of options for accommodation on the island. BASE hostel was an obvious choice for us, not only because we have the BASE Jump card, but also because it has the most popular bar on the island.

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Apparently it used to be an aquarium, so the campus is spaciously spread out with stellar views of the ocean. It’s the perfect place to kick back and enjoy some island time. Be sure to visit our BFF Adam at the travel desk for kickass adventure ideas and sweet deals on bookings. Tell him Kim & MJ sent you.

Renting a 4x4

Absolutely, hands-down the best way to see Magnetic Island. Adam booked an Arcadia Beach Car Hire for us, and we were happy with the vehicle. It was an old standard transmission cruiser, but it got the job done. We rented it for just the two of us, but you can definitely split it among 4 people for a better deal and additional company.

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The cars are heaps of fun. Topless is the way to go - it’s fun even just to drive around the island and enjoy the views from the road. You have the option to rent if for a few hours, 12-hours, or 24-hours. Definitely go for at least 12-hours so you can do all the activities. We opted for 24 hours literally just so we could drive out to West Point for sunset. Unbelievably worth it. 

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Horseshoe Bay

We started our day in the most northern part of the island at Nourish Cafe. Great iced coffee to get you going. Horseshoe Bay is the place to go if you’re interested in souvenirs and the classic tourist-ville main drag. Pretty beach too.

Snorkeling

As part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the bays around Magnetic practically call your name. Hop in any of the bays around the northeast part of the island for some more secluded swimming, or check out the more southern spots like Geoffrey Bay for snorkeling*. But be sure to rent a stinger suit with your snorkeling gear, otherwise you risk a lethal sting from some of the world’s deadliest jellies. Not worth it. Take the sexy suit. 

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Koalas at The Forts

The iconic cuddly Koala of Australia roams freely around this National Park safe haven, and you can spot them anywhere along The Forts walk. Don’t make the mistake we did - a blazing hot midday walk is not a good choice. First of all, you won’t see any koalas because they’re smarter than you by avoiding the heat. Second of all, you’ll melt before you even get to the top. Take a hike in the morning or late afternoon when the koalas are more active. When you find one, stay a respectable distance away from them and do not feed them - they can be aggressive. You’re a visitor in their home, so don’t ruin their Eucalyptus high.

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Feeding Rock Wallabies 

For another, friendlier marsupial encounter, you have to go to Geoffrey Bay at sunset. Wild rock wallabies will emerge from their hiding places in exchange for a nibble on your snacks. It’s really important that you only feed them approved foods, otherwise they could get sick. We recommend carrots because they’re cheap, we already had them for our own snacking purposes, and it’s not sticky. The wallabies really like them, and chopping an entire carrot will give you a ton of little discs to share with the wallabies. 

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Nighttime on the Island

If you’re not afraid of the dark, take a midnight stroll to truly experience the wildlife. The island comes alive at night. Just take 5 minutes to listen to the bats swooping through the sky, or the possums wandering around the trees, or even the little unknowns rustling in the underbrush. It’s a truly amazing feeling to walk among the wild things in such magical place.

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If you’re looking for a place to go for your midnight stroll, check out the Magnetic Island Bakery… it’s open 24/7 and the owner is an absolute sweetheart. He’ll hook you up with the best treats on the island.

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*Ask Adam about the batfish, maybe he’ll clue you in.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay was the first stop on our big east coast adventure. We flew into Brisbane and caught a 2-hour shuttle south to the hippie surfer town to kick back for 4 days. If you’re thinking about spending time in Brisbane, consider Byron Bay as a more laid-back alternative.

Cape Byron 

The namesake and spirit of this little beach town, Cape Byron is made for adventure. Whether you swim, surf, hike or kayak around it, you’ll be able to say that you’ve been to the Most Easterly Point of Australia - but don’t miss a photo op with the Cape Byron lighthouse!

Byron Bay is also home to a lovely family of bottlenose dolphins. The unique shape and angle of Cape Byron protects the bay from strong currents, plus its shallow depth deters predators from hanging around, making it a calm, safe haven for our rubbery friends! If you’re interested in getting up close and personal to these pals, book a tour with Go Sea Kayak. You have the option of either a morning or afternoon adventure to hop in a boat with a buddy and paddle out around the Cape. 

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Even if you don’t see dolphins (which is always possible - nature can never be controlled), it’s well worth the view of Cape Byron. You can spot the lighthouse from a far, and you can watch the surfers shred some gnarly tubes! Plus, Go Sea Kayak will give you the unique offer of coming back for free to have another shot at seeing some pretty porpoises. 

Surfing in Byron Bay

Byron Bay is known for its superb surfing. There are loads of companies who are willing to drag you out to the wave break and get you up on a board. Contrary to it’s northern big brother Surfer’s Paradise, Byron Bay is perfect for beginners. The waves are usually smaller and break on an angle to the beach, giving you more time to get up on your feet. 

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Black Dog Surf Company took me out on my very first surf lesson, and quite a success it was. I even managed a double switch foot by the end of the day! The lesson was small and geared towards first-timers. As with most surf lessons, we started with perfecting our form before even getting wet. Then we lined up in the water and were sent off into the Byron Bay waves, one-by-one, with dedicated direction from the instructor. Their lessons aren’t very long, and sometimes Byron Bay may feel a bit busy with other beach-goers, but it’s a great way to start surfing!

Mojo Surf gave me my second lesson, and I’m glad I had some previous experience. Instead of surfing in Byron Bay, Mojo brought us south to Lennox Head. As usual, we started with stretching and dry practice. While there were blue skies above, there were rough waves on the beach, making for some seriously tough learning conditions. The safe section of beach was a bit limited, so many of us felt too crowded to give it our best shot. There were significantly more students than instructors, so a lot of the learning was on our own. - but when they were nearby, the instructors were quick to help and send you off on a good wave! Plus, the on-beach photographer is there to snap a pic if when you pop up! After the lesson is over, you get to go for a dip in the rusty colored Lake Ainsworth, a.k.a. Ti Tree Lake.

If you come to Byron Bay for a surf lesson, do some research on the local companies. If your experience with surfing is little to none, you may want to do a one-day lesson with a smaller group to get you started. If you’ve shredded before and want to take your skills to the next level, consider booking one of Mojo’s more advanced surf camps for a totally wicked experience!

Hostels in Byron

Arts Factory, owned by the same company as Mojo Surf, is a funky, colorful, good vibes hostel geared towards chilled out backpackers. They have a series of 10-bed tipis if you’re looking for something different, but they also have your classic dorm-style rooms with ventilation. The open-air campus has plenty to keep you busy. Their pool is perfect for a midday dip, or spend the evening sipping drinks on the pond-side benches, or even chat with the monstrous lizards who will keep you company during breakfast. They have weekly activity schedules for all types of explorers… word has it that the nature walk is very informative!

Nomads is also a great place to meet other backpackers and enjoy some loud nights. There are lots of long-term guests, making for nightly in-house shenanigans reminiscent of college dorm parties. They also have an outdoor courtyard with hammocks and hot tubs for a spot to chill out during the day, or socialize over dinner and drinks with some new friends at night. Plus, Nomads is right in the downtown area. You can easily hop over to any of the many restaurants and bars any day of the week. The streets are always alive.

When the Sun Goes Down

If you only have one night in Byron, you must walk down to the beachfront for sunset. It is truly magical. Pop a squat on the sand and watch the fog roll into the trees as the sky turns pink. If you’re a dog lover, get ready to start crying tears of joy. The beach is overtaken by happy puppers chasing birds and playing fetch. Heaven on Earth.

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Walking back up towards town, you’ll immediately feel the change in atmosphere. There are groups of happy folk singing and dancing even just on the beachside promenade. Every corner of Byron is a stage for performers to show off their string-picking skills or harmonic vocals. You might just find Australia’s best new artist on your walk home.

Food and Drinks 

Byron Bay is full of hidden gems. For some unique food options, check out:

  • Orgasmic Food - Middle Eastern with the best falafel ever

  • Legend Pizza - the perfect late night stop, certified thumbs up from New York pizza snobs

  • Elixiba - unbelievably flavorful vegan dishes (try the coconut flesh calamari)

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For drinks or a good night out, try:

  • Railway Friendly Bar - laid-back, good vibes pub with a beer garden and live music every single night (for the last 30 years!!!!)

  • Beach Hotel - pretty big venue with ticketed events throughout the week

  • Woody’s Surf Shack - the go-to nightclub for young partygoers

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Shark Bay Heritage Site

Shark Bay is a peninsula located on the West Coast of Australia, 850km north of Perth. The World Heritage Site is known for its unique ecological features including the Shell Beach, Hamelin Pools, Francis Peron National Park, and the marine wildlife of Monkey Mia.

 

Shell Beach

Shell Beach is not your average white sand beach. While it might look that way against the endless blue sky, the white rolling dunes of the beach are actually made up of tiny shells! These shells are all from a single species, an echinoderm known as the Shark Bay cockle - Fragum erugatum for my fellow biologists out there.

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The water is only ankle-deep for most of the way out, so it’s easy to wade in the ocean and appreciate the beach from afar! 

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Hamelin Pools

The Hamelin Pools are what credits the Shark Bay area for the second criteria of a World Heritage site. The flat “pancakes” are an ancient type of stromatolite that has been around for 3500 million years!

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Enjoy a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk as you float above the starkly colored landscape. If you’re lucky, you can listen to the birds chirping as they dance in the sun. Check out this brochure if you’re interested in bird-watching throughout the area!

 

Denham

Denham is the first town upon entering the heritage area. It’s striking blue waters welcome you immediately upon pulling into the town centre.

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The town has a rich story of sea exploration, and is themed after the historic shipwrecks off the coast. Two of the significant shipwrecks have been memorialized in the town center: Dutch merchant ship named Zuytdorp (1712), and a Norwegian whaler named Gudrun (1901). Read more about the local history on their website!

There are plenty of accommodation options in Denham, from the Heritage Resort to the variety of holiday parks along the beach. Be sure to stop by the Discovery Centre in town to check out the gallery of awe-inspiring local photography!

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Monkey Mia

Monkey Mia is home to the friendly bottlenose dolphins. Every morning, the dolphins are treated to a free continental fish breakfast! For just AUS$12, you can get up close and watch them from the shore. The park is a marine reserve, so your fee is supporting a great cause. 

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The operations at Monkey Mia have a long history of caring for the dolphins. Wildlife biologists have studied the local pod extensively, and have built the Monkey Mia experience to be as ecologically sustainable as possible. The conservationists take exceptional care to ensure that the dolphins do not feel threatened, and that their natural behavior is kept a priority. The dolphins are only there because they choose to be. There are strict guidelines for being a part of the magic, so please listen to your hosts carefully - they are professionals, and they know what’s best for the dolphins. 

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If you’re lucky, you might even be chosen to help the volunteers feed the dolphins!

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There are accommodation options in Monkey Mia if you’re keen on living with the dolphins for a few days. Otherwise, Denham is an easy 30-minute drive away.

There’s plenty to do in Monkey Mia. Enjoy an early morning coffee before the feeding, or grab some lunch at the Boughshed beachfront restaurant. Be careful of the pesky seabirds - they are not shy! 

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Before leaving, say a quick hello to the giant pelicans roaming the beach! But don’t get too close, they’re stronger than you think! 

 

Francis Peron National Park

Francis Peron is a wild, remote National Park covering the entire northern half of the Shark Bay peninsula. It’s an easy drive to the homestead, but beyond that requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Hiring a tour is the best way to see the vast wildlife haven. They can show you the best landscapes without you having to worry about getting “bogged” in the sand! Stop by the Visitor Centre in Denham to book, or check online.