The one thing Shibani Dandekar has never forgotten about spending a decade-and-a-half in Australia, is the close proximity to the outdoors. Born in Pune, the 39-year-old host, model and actor now resides in Mumbai, but knows the land Down Under like the back of her hand. She speaks with National Geographic Traveller India about soaking in the outdoors, getting up-close with wildlife and making the most of an Australian holiday. Here are edited excerpts.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sydney?
What I most identify with Sydney is that I literally grew up outside. It’s about being a part of nature, beaches and wildlife. And that’d be similar to anyone’s experience in the country, because you spend so much time enjoying what the Great Outdoors has to offer. That’s the one thing I can’t stress enough.
Your top five Australian hotspots?
For nature, I’d go to Rottnest Island in Western Australia, which sits offshore from Perth. I’d go to Kangaroo Island southwest of Adelaide. I’d definitely see Sydney and climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For shopping, Melbourne is the place to be. Beach culture is such a huge part of Australian life—I’d hit a few in Queensland.
Which are your favourite five food joints and what is an absolute must-eat in the country?
I would not be able to give you food joints, but I can tell you that wherever you eat in Australia, the quality of the food and produce is great. Whenever I go back, I have fresh fish and chips. It’s always great. We have local shops where you get charcoal chicken and chips with Greek salads. Without a doubt, I indulge in meat pie on all my trips. It’s an Australian staple.
What’s your memory of a family getaway while growing up in Australia?
I have several. My parents took us to Gold Coast. We went to Tasmania and Perth for a holiday. There’s so much to see and do if you want to stay local. It’s quite easy to get around Australia as flights from the west to the east are only a couple of hours away. I found Port Macquarie in New South Wales (currently besieged by a wildfire) a delight for its wildlife and beaches.
What would you recommend to someone who’s visiting the country for the first time?
Even if you visit each state for only a couple of days, make time to cover what you really wish to see—whether its natural beauty, culture or art. Partake in adventure sports and make the most of the country’s beaches and wildlife.
Your recommendation on where to catch the perfect sundowner?
Let’s go with the good ol’ Bondi Beach in Sydney. If you’re looking for sunsets, I don’t think you’re going to get a bad one here.
What’s the most quintessential outdoorsy Australian experience?
A barbecue in a park or at the beach.
To soak in the best of art and culture, which spots would you ask people to see?
I grew up in Sydney performing regularly at the Opera House. And I indulged in western and Indian styles of dance. It still hosts plenty of competitions and performances.
Melbourne and Sydney are home to great museums. You can catch musicals and plays in both these cities. I also went to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales where you can get a glimpse of the Aboriginal culture including rock art. See what I mean? Australia is a mixed bag of offerings.
What advice would you give to tourists to practice responsible wildlife tourism?
Just the basics. Don’t throw trash. Only feed animals what you’re supposed to feed them—if at all. Follow the guidelines and listen to the caretakers. You must respect the animals and their boundaries.
The land Down Under is teeming with wildlife. What’s a must-try experience?
I’d go with feeding kangaroos. Or holding a koala in Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Also, do visit the Hamilton Island in Queensland to get a close-up sighting of wild animals like wallabies and kookaburras.
What about Australia do you think surprises people the most?
I wouldn’t call it surprising, but I think the warmth of the people there is what makes the experience even better. They’re just so happy to show you their country.
Are there any up and coming Australian hotspots popping up on the radar?
There are a lot of clubs and bars, especially in Sydney.
What souvenirs would you bring back?
I think an Australian hat for sure. Some vegemite, a boomerang and a didgeridoo.
Five things that you would pack for Australia.
Sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, Ugg boots and definitely a bikini.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.