Australia's Northern Territory is like nowhere else. Picture desert landscapes, hidden waterfalls and swimming holes, aboriginal art and storytelling, and rock formations ripe for exploring. If you’ve ever dreamed of riding a camel across Oz’s stunning outback, this is the place to do it.
The Northern Territory (a.k.a. the NT) is one of Australia’s eight major territories and states, yet it’s vast and sparsely populated, with just 244,000 denizens sprinkled across 550,000 square miles. It’s been home to Indigenous Australians for more than 40,000 years, and today tourism is one of its main industries. That means booking activities and getting around are easy and straightforward—and, with a little planning, they can be wallet-friendly, too.
The Sweet Spot
April to June, September to October
The region has two distinct climates: the northernmost tip, including its capital city Darwin, is tropical, with a wet season from October to April and a dry season between May and September. The rest of the region is in the country’s baking-hot desert center, which gets less than 10 inches of rain per year. In both climates, winter—specifically late June through August—is the most pleasant time to visit, with sunny, less-humid days in the north and cooler temperatures in the desert. But that means flights and hotels are at a premium, and must-see destinations are crowded with tourists. In the fall and spring, travelers can find bargains while the tropics’ rainy season isn’t in full swing and temps are still manageable (read: not too hot).
The Cheapest Option
November to March
Summer is Australia’s slow season, thanks to humidity and rain in the north and, further south, dry desert days that regularly top 90 degrees. Still, if you’re willing to plan around the weather, it’s a great time to score deals. Darwin, the main attraction in the region’s tropical zone, is packed with great museums, restaurants, shops, and bars to help you escape the heat or rain. And down in Australia’s Red Centre, dawn and dusk border on chilly even on the hottest days, so guests can cluster outdoor excursions around sunrise and sunset and then swim or siesta on dog-day afternoons.
The Smart Place to Stay
Getting to Australia will likely make up the biggest chunk of your vacation budget; even remote areas are home to reasonably priced hotels.
Ayers Rock Resort
If you’re planning to visit Uluru, a.k.a. Ayers Rock, and the nearby Kata Tjuta (and, truly, you can’t come all the way to the NT and not experience these stunning orange-red rock formations), this campus-like property is the place to stay. It’s home to eight lodges, including the fully loaded Emu Walk Apartments, where a full kitchen and dining area lets travelers save money by handling their own meals. We found one-bedrooms for $234 per night in November, compared to $309 in July. The rugged Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge offers single beds in shared rooms to backpackers starting at $29 per night (plus modest hotel rooms from $174), and the Ayers Rock Campground has campsites as well as cabins with (bless!) air conditioning; a cabin that sleeps six starts at $135. The resort also offers a grocery store, multiple restaurants, a spa, and an impressive list of free cultural activities, from bush food tasting to indigenous theater to museum tours.
Crowne Plaza Lasseters Alice Springs
This big, sun-splashed hotel is a stone’s throw from many of Alice Spring’s restaurants and shops, but the real standout is its natural environs: It’s along the bank of the Todd River, right at the foot of the beautiful MacDonnell Ranges. There’s free wifi, a large health club, a smattering of restaurants, a heated outdoor pool, and complimentary mountain bikes for those who prefer to explore the area on two wheels. We found rooms for $88 in May, compared to $113 in July.
This leafy compound in Darwin, northwest of the city center and just a couple blocks from the Charles Darwin National Park, sits on the site of the Leprechaun Motel, a humble motor inn built in 1969. Today, the recently refurbished resort comprises a patchwork of clean, cheery cottages, two-bedroom cabins, and hotel rooms strewn across lush landscaped gardens. There’s also a lagoon-style pool and a bus stop at the property’s doorstep—for easy access to downtown Darwin, minus any of the city’s hubbub. We found stays as low as $45 per night in January, while rates hover around $100 during the high season.
What to Do
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is on the cover of every guidebook to the Northern Territory, and for good reason: Uluru and Kata Tjuta are both enormous sandstone rocks that stretch thousands of feet toward the sky, and while they’re eye-catching in the distance (sunrise camel rides let you view them both on the horizon), they’re jaw-dropping up close. It’s no surprise both are important to the indigenous tribes there.
Uluru, a single boulder that stretches 1,100 feet high and more than two miles long, is easily explored on foot; drive in or book a tour at your hotel to walk the three-mile trail along its base. Be sure to pause at the Mutitjulu waterhole, a rare natural pool in a curve of red rock.
Katja Tjuta, a 45-minute drive away, is an even more massive rock formation that resembles a row of crooked teeth. Walk through a thin gorge in the formation’s middle or hike through the breathtaking Valley of the Winds walk—a challenging three-hour route in and around the boulders.
After the sun sets, visit the nearby Field of Light, a fairy-tale outdoor art installation with 50,000 lights blanketing an area the size of four soccer fields. The solar-powered bulbs, which look a bit like glowing tulips, change colors as you wander through. The exhibit, dreamed up by artist Bruce Munro, was originally scheduled to close at the end of 2017, but it’s been extended to the end of 2020.
In Alice Springs, a short flight away (and the nearest populous city), rent a car or hire a guide and set out into the rolling desert hills and the nearby West MacDonnell Ranges. Head west to Simpsons Gap, a scenic gorge where water flows through a tiny gap in the mountains, then follow the road along the mountains to other jaw-dropping lookout points and spring-fed waterholes perfect for a swim (Ellery Creek Big Hole makes for a refreshing dip on a hot day, while Ormistan Gorge gives you the feeling you’re swimming in an undiscovered part of the world).
Darwin, with a population of 146K, is a waterfront town and the Northern Territory’s only “big city.” A former frontier outpost on the banks of the Timor Sea, it’s now home to interesting museums, such as the Darwin Military Museum and the Parliament House, along with outdoor experiences like the Darwin Botanical Garden and cruises galore. Popular day trips include Katherine Gorge, a series of picture-perfect gorges and waterfalls; Kakadu National Park, a massive nature reserve with aboriginal rock paintings and thousands of plant and wildlife species; and Litchfield National Park, a scenic reserve dotted with waterfalls.
Tips to Save Even More
If you fly into Australia on Qantas Airlines, book an Explorer Pass to get the cheapest rates in and out of the Northern Territory.
Check the local newspapers and chat with your hotel’s front desk for leads on free entertainment and events; Darwin, certainly, is large enough to be home to outdoor concerts and other complimentary fun.
Book tours and airport transfers ahead of time for the best rates. And bear in mind that many of the outdoor activities, such as hiking and splashing in local waterfalls and swimming holes, are free.
You can save on airfare by self-driving in the Northern Territory. It’s about a six-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru (although Darwin is far enough away to merit a flight). Red Center Way connects Uluru and Alice Springs with two wide-open roads, so driving on the “wrong” side of the street isn’t as scary as it sounds.