Why stay in a hotel room when you could sleep in a wine barrel, under the sea, or locked in a lunatic asylum (as they were once called)? Some of the following Australian stays are steeped in history; others are simply fun. Some options nudge guests outside their comfort zones to face fears of ghosts, heights, and incarceration. Why would you stay? Travelers love returning home with a story to tell. One that starts with the line: “Did I ever tell you about the night I slept … ”
1. Up A Pole
As whimsical as a Dr. Seuss house, the Pole House hovers like a spaceship 130 feet above Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Built to withstand a cyclone, the one-bedroom home appears to balance on a pylon and can sway up to six inches in gale-force winds. Architect/engineer Frank Dixon created the house in the 1970s, and it was remodeled by new owners in 2013. To enter, guests step out from the cliff then navigate what looks like a fashion runway hanging in mid-air thanks to the clear glass safety railings. Entry offers a 360-degree view of the Southern Ocean — the wide blue yonder of sea and sky. The floor-to-ceiling windows are retractable. Look down at 30 miles of dramatic coastline with one of the world’s most scenic drives snaking at your feet.
Coober Pedy is an opal mining town located an 8.5-hour drive north of Adelaide. Named after the Aboriginal term kupa-piti, meaning “whitefellas’ hole,” some 60 percent of the town’s 3,500 residents live underground to beat temperatures that soar to 116 Fahrenheit. The town may sound like the pits but provides a fascinating look at an adaptive lifestyle. Play golf on a moonscape course, attend church, shop and dine underground, and buy opals from the source. See where Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Red Planet, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were filmed.
Tourists can stay underground in Airbnbs like the Coober Pedy Holiday Rental, hotels such as the Lookout Cave Underground Motel and the Comfort Inn Experience Coober Pedy, or even camp underground. Claustrophobes be warned: It’s pitch-black when you switch off the light.
Pro Tip: This quirky town is a stop-off on The Ghan, a world-famous Outback rail journey. The best time to visit is in winter (May to September).
3. Under The Sea
ReefSuites provides a way of staying in the Great Barrier Reef. The luxury rooms are 45 miles out from the mainland and 15 feet under the sea. The floor-to-ceiling windows give new meaning to the saying sleep with the fishes. Read my review of the experience in The Ultimate Ocean Adventure: Sleep Under Water On The Great Barrier Reef.
4. In A Quarantine Station
Previous generations handled pandemics differently, and some might argue better than we do today. For over 150 years, Sydney’s Quarantine Station (established in 1835) was where officials quarantined passengers suspected of harboring diseases such as the Spanish Influenza or the Bubonic Plague. Of the 13,000 persons quarantined, an estimated 572 died. With its stunning harbourside location near Manly and views over Sydney’s world-famous harbor, it would have become prime real estate but instead became part of Sydney Harbour National Park. The fully restored historic buildings are now cottages and hotel rooms — and Q Station is the only hotel in Sydney with a private beach. Enjoy history and ghost tours, plus restaurants and bars. Q Station is a good option for tourists visiting Sydney but not wanting to stay within the bustling metropolis.
Pro Tip: Q Station is 30 minutes from Sydney by ferry on the hop-on, hop-off service that also offers many other tourist stops.
5. In A Cave
The Enchanted Cave is at Wollemi National Park in Bilpin in the Blue Mountains, tucked behind Sydney. It might be an upmarket cave with panoramic views. However, it’s still a total Flintstone experience with a bed set over bedrock and a Wilma-style sandstone kitchen. Check out the accommodations, and pictures of the surrounding national park, in my introduction to this primitive utopia that offers a cave experience unlike anything else.
6. With A Host of Ghosts
Stay at Monte Cristo Homestead, Australia’s most haunted house. The two-story mansion perches on a hill overlooking Junee in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The Crawley family built the estate in the 1880s. A stay includes dinner, a ghost tour, and a gift if you make it down for breakfast in the morning — suggesting some guests run away in the middle of the night or are spirited away. For ghosts, take your pick: the maid Mrs. Crawley pushed over the balcony when she discovered the girl was pregnant by her husband. The stableboy who died when the master set his straw mattress alight. The deranged man chained in the backyard for 40 years. And Magdalena, the Crawleys’ toddler, who died after falling down the stairs. Or was she dropped? If movies like Annabelle terrify you, do not visit the Doll Museum before bed. Here’s why.
7. In A Wine Barrel
Not everyone can say they visited Australia and slept in a wine barrel. This stay is in the Hunter Valley — a famous New South Wales wine region north of Sydney with a rich immigrant history going back to the 1800s. The Wine Barrel is a refurbished 1950s Nissen Hut of the type built for immigrant miners and their families with the roof and walls curved like a barrel. This accommodation is well placed to access the wineries and is also a pick-up point for several winery tours.
8. In An Asylum
The Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum opened in 1867 in Beechworth, Victoria. It was the largest building in the state and could hold up to 1,200 patients. Authorities thought the high altitude winds would clear patients’ minds and that straight jackets and isolation cages were effective treatments. The facility closed in 1995, but visitors can still wander through 27 acres of stunning gardens. Locals have been buying some of the incredible old buildings for tourist enterprises. Asylum Ghost Tours offers ghost and photographic tours, paranormal investigations, and horror movie nights in the main hall, where patients once enjoyed their cinema nights. Mayday Escape Rooms have taken over the old butcher shop and pharmacy. The storylines in their immersive games take in the history of the buildings. Chris Cole, the co-owner of these escape rooms, said, “For visitors who want to stay the night, we have set up lodgings in Kurrajong Lodge- Beechworth, the original men’s lock-up ward, which still has a couple of the cells intact.” There are three rooms on offer. Guests say a combination of the escape room and the stay really gets the blood pumping.
Beechworth is a historic gold rush town, famous for connections with Ned Kelly — Australia’s notorious bushranger. Ned’s uncle, James Kelly, was an inmate in the asylum and one of the 3,000 who never made it out. Hopefully, if you check in, you’ll make it out and live to tell your tale.
9. Hanging Off A Cliff
Australia offers the world’s highest commercial cliff camping experience. Guests sleep out on a portaledge with Victoria’s Mount Buffalo Gorge almost 1,000 feet below them. There are logistics like getting down to the ledge, going to the toilet, and choosing a side of the bed. Will it be wall side or fall side? For all the details, consider How to Experience the World’s Highest Cliff Camping.
10. In A Cell
Perth’s Fremantle Prison likes to say it has been welcoming guests since 1850. Built by convicts, today the precinct is a premier tourist attraction and a World Heritage-listed building. Do your time with experienced guides, including a boat tour in the labyrinth of underground tunnels or the eerie torchlight tour. At the Fremantle Prison YHA tourists pay to spend the night behind bars. Cell doors list prisoners’ crimes, making for unsettling bedtime reading. There are also larger rooms and salubrious warders’ cottages available.
Pro Tip: Fremantle is a recommended place to stay in Perth because of its coffee culture, restaurants, and century-old market. For more inspiration, consider Vanessa Chiasson’s advice on how to spend two days in Perth.