Arriving to Alice Springs is special. Rarely do you get thrown into an unknown land in the same way as when you set foot in the desert town. Alice is lined with a varying nature despite the areas harsh climate that makes it warm all year round. In the south, Alice Springs is lined by the MacDonnell Ranges, in all other directions, red sand stretches into a seemingly endless rolling desert. The sand contains iron oxide, which gives it its red colour.
If you plan to get here by driving instead of by airplane, you should set aside a great deal of time to get to know the original Australia. What began as a telegraph station built in the 1870s in order to maintain contact between Adelaide and Darwin, rapidly grew to what now is Alice Springs. The town is in the centre of the country, located about 1,500 kilometres from both Darwin and Adelaide. With its 24,000 inhabitants, the town is the third-largest town in the Northern Territory. It’s easy to make the mistake of confusing Alice Springs with Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). Alice Springs is a six-hour drive from Uluru and thus a good base before visiting the iconic monolith. But stay any extra day in Alice if you have time, for there is a lot to discover here. Alice Springs has both personality and a lot of activities that are worth dedicating some time to. After all, it is a place that you probably will not return to because of its distant location.
Although you are in a red, barren desert, Alice has plenty of good food, cosy cafés and a pleasant nightlife. Taking a four-wheel drive car for a spin in the desert or embarking on a hot air balloon trip are popular activities for both tourists and residents. The town is a paradise for those who love to drive and experience nature and settlements along the way. The trip from Adelaide is as made for an exciting car ride. Or, you can fly here, the town is, after all, known for the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. However, you get to experience the true vast desert if you drive to Alice. Not only do you see thousands of cows wandering over the arid land, but you also get to experience kilometres after kilometres of red sand, chimney-like termite mounds and the most distant little bars with its surprisingly tasty burgers.
Sights and experiences
There is something for everyone in the city, whether you like sports, good food or both. Alice Springs has several good restaurants and bars. You can hike or try mountain biking around the desert and there are several possibilities for a good hotel experience. The town has many resorts and hotels that offer all-inclusive, swimming pool and fitness centre. Despite being the third largest city in the Northern Territory, it is still relatively small but with a relatively large range of activities, making it easy to find something that interests most. Opportunities to spend time in nature there are lots of, and if you like nature experiences, sports, cycling or hiking, Alice Springs is an excellent choice. For those who do not want or are not able to get around themselves, there are lots of arranged activities to choose from in Alice Springs and surrounds (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Alice%20Springs,%20Northern%20Territory).
Discover and explore
An organized trip or guided tour is for many at the top of the list of things to do when visiting a new place in a completely new area. The first highlight on the map is Alice Springs West McDonnell Ranges Half Day Tours with an option like Alice Springs Desert Park (tailormadetours.com.au/tours/half-day-tours/west-macdonnell-ranges). This activity is a half day tour where you get an overview of the landscape and see how it affects the inhabitants. You start the day at sunrise at Anzac Hill followed by enjoying the red mountain range that shapes the landscape and then lunch is served in the form of a picnic at a vantage point. If you choose to spend the afternoon in Alice Springs Desert Park, you get the chance to meet wild animals and see how the indigenous live. Homecoming is done at lunch or in the evening, depending on whether you choose a half-or full day tour.
Palm Valley Outback Safari 4WD Tour takes you on an adventure through Palm Valley (wotif.com/things-to-do/palm-valley-outback-safari-4×4-day-tour.a228487.activity-details). The Northern Territory in general and particular the Red Desert invite you to experience as such, where you will be guided by experts from The Historic Precinct of Hermannsburg through the Finke River Bed and on towards Palm Valley.
Parks and National Parks
Number four on the map, The Larapinta Trail is an experience for those who like to get around on foot (nt.gov.au/leisure/recreation/bushwalking-hiking/larapinta-trail). The Larapinta Trail stretches from the old telegraph station in Alice Springs to a 360-degree view from Mount Probes which is the finish of the 237-kilometre-long hiking trail. Larapinta Trails have several hiking trails of different lengths. The longest one of 237 km is crossed by other hiking trails, making it easy for those who change their mind along the way. Larapinta Trail is also a national park and is considered one of the jewels of the Northern Territory’s crown.
In addition to walking on your own, you can get around the area with a guide. Jatbula Trek Walks offers a six-day hike in Larapinta Trail’s Arnhem Land Escarpment, from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls (treklarapinta.com.au/jatbula/jatbula.html). Besides being an experience, it is also a challenge. There are many different variants to choose from depending on how much you want to see and how far you are prepared to walk. For example, it is possible to hike up to sixteen days in a row (treklarapinta.com.au/LarapintaTrailTours/index.html).
Far-reaching views and sights of the red desert are tempting for many, and an alternative to bus, car and hiking is to during sunrise embark on balloon rides over Alice Springs with, for example, the company Outback Balooning (wotif.com/things-to-do/alice-springs-early-morning-balloon-flight.a180446.activity-details). A guide tells you what you see and gives information about the red colour, mountains and hiking trails around Alice. The balloon ride starts about one hour before sunrise and finishes around nine o’clock in the morning. You get to see the beautiful scenery from a new angle and the chance to see the red kangaroo and other wildlife.
If you like explorations but neither want to walk or drive a car yourself, then option number five on the list, Quad bike in Undoolya Station (outbackquadadventures.com.au) might perhaps fit you better. These vehicles have been adapted for the desert, which is necessary if you are going through Alice Springs and to experience Undoolya in its entirety. The tour starts in the morning and ends early afternoon. In total, you can count on three and a half hours. Other quad biking tours are also available. This is suitable for those who want to see a lot during a short time but at the same time have a bit of an adventure.
Restaurants and cafés
Page 27 Café is well-known thanks to their well-made coffee combined with extensive breakfasts and lunches (facebook.com/Page27Cafe/). They serve a wide selection of breakfast and lunch dishes. For a low price you can also buy sweet pastries to enjoy with one of Australia’s best coffees.
Red Ochre Grill Restaurant (redochrealice.com.au) is an obvious choice for tourists and residents who want a well-made dinner at a good price. Red Ochre Grill Restaurant prepares Australian food such as venison and seafood. And just as the name suggests, the food is grilled. The restaurant is located inside the Todd Mall and is open every day from early until late. Well worth a visit if you are in Alice Springs.
Located right inside the centre of Alice Springs, Uncle Edy’s Ice Cream has made a name for itself among tourists visiting the city. Uncle Edy’s Ice Cream is said to have become so popular thanks to its qualitative ingredients and innovative flavours (yelp.com.au/biz/uncle-edys-ice-cream-alice-springs).
Good to know
During a trip to the country’s centre, you will sooner or later get to Alice Springs. Some stop, others keep driving. Several roads meet in the city, which means that there are often plenty of other travellers to meet. From Alice Springs, you can drive up to Darwin, to the coast or to nearby attractions. For example, you can rent a car (wotif.com/Car-Hire) at Alice Springs Airport (wotif.com/Flights) to increase your mobility. Visit one of the smaller pubs along the way and order burgers with French fries. There are few places in the world that offer burgers of the same outstanding class as the areas around Alice Springs.
Theft and robbery occur in Alice Springs. If you are travelling in a car, you should lock the doors even if you are just going to fill up on petrol. And keep track of bags and valuables as you move around.
There are plenty of opportunities to stay in a hostel or just to park your car somewhere. Bed & Breakfasts are harder to find. However, there are a few options to choose from (hotelscombined.com/Place/Alice_Springs.htm).
Five-star Double Tree by Hilton (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/DoubleTree_by_Hilton_Alice_Springs.htm) offers good service, spa, gym, and air conditioning. The hotel has won several sustainability awards for their environmental awareness and they proudly offers various amenities without sacrificing what they believe in. Sports facilities such as tennis courts are available around the 236 rooms that make up the hotel.
Bed & Breakfast
Kathy’s Place (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Kathys_Place_Bed_and_Breakfast.htm) is one of the Bed & Breakfasts that can be found within Alice Springs. Kathy Fritz herself came to Alice Springs for over 40 years ago with her husband Karl Fritz and she is more than happy to tell anyone about Alice Springs. The rooms offered are single, double and family rooms. Breakfast is included, of course, as well as good service.
Staying at a hostel when travelling is a great way to save some money. There are several options for those who are not tempted by hotel or camping.
YHA Hostel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Alice_Springs_YHA.htm) is very popular with backpackers around the world and has received many positive reviews from backpackers who have lived here when they’ve been to Alice Springs. Centrally located, YHA Hostel features air conditioning, BBQ facilities and a large open-air cinema. There are many opportunities to socialize with other travellers on YHA in Alice Springs.
Alice Lodge Backpackers (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Alice_Lodge_Backpackers.htm) is another option for those who want to meet other travellers and exchange experiences. It offers free Internet, free breakfast and, if you want, you can even get picked up from the airport free of charge. Alice Lodge Backpackers has a swimming pool that invites to barbecues, late evenings, fun and memorable moments. This hostel is located a 5-minute walk from the town centre.
The BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/BIG4_MacDonnell_Range_Holiday_Park.htm) have won many awards for their campsite in the Northern Territory. Here you can rent everything from a simple campsite to budget rooms and luxury apartments. For those who have cars, parking is available. Just four kilometres outside the centre of Alice Springs is this campsite which is also well-known for its pancake breakfast served every Sunday.
A Saturday around Alice Springs
04.30 – High in the sky
Rise before the sun. The tour starts at 5 o’clock and soon you will be richly rewarded with a beautiful sunrise. After a journey high above the countryside you will be back down on solid ground at nine o’clock. If you are still tired, head back to your accommodation to sleep for an hour to cope with a long day.
11.00 – Time for brunch
After you have gotten ready, go to Alice Springs for brunch. Take a seat at Page 27 Café. Try any of their hearty baguettes along with coffee or choose a classic eggs Benedict. After a longer stop, stroll around the Todd Mall to buy souvenirs, snacks and water.
13.00 – Walking the Larapinta Trail
You get into the rental car and drive towards Larapinta Trail to see a bit of the surroundings. Once there you have four, five hours ahead of you, so choose one of the nature reserve’s shorter hiking trails. Despite the tight timeframe, you get to see woodland, desert and, not least, the dramatic mountain range stretching far alongside the town.
19.00 – Local delicacies and socializing
At seven o’clock in the evening, take the car back to the accommodation to change for dinner. Most likely you are starved after the fast-paced day and are in a hurry to get to the Red Ochre Grill Restaurant to try out some of Alice Springs’ specialties. After dinner, stop for a drink to socialize with other travellers and to exchange experiences and testimonials about Alice Springs.
00.00 – Starry night
Star gazing is a must when you are in Alice Springs. There are few places on Earth where you can see the stars as clearly as here. Find a suitable spot outside the centre where you can stretch out on your back and quietly gaze up into the skies. Soon it has gotten later than expected and you have been awake since early in the morning. It’s time to get back for a good night’s sleep.