For Westerners, Australia somehow manages to be both familiar and exotic at the same time. Although inhabited by Europeans and considered a modern industrial nation, its bizarre wildlife and distance from other centers of European civilization such as Europe and the United States makes it seem rather strange. Coupled with the amusing quirks of its laidback inhabitants, it's no wonder that Australia periodically becomes fashionable in places like America - remember "Crocodile Dundee"? This whole thing was captured very nicely in the episode of The Simpsons where the Simpson family finds itself Down Under and ultimately has to be rescued by the United States Navy laundry ship, the Walter Mondale (the not very highly renowned American vice-president under Jimmy Carter).
To New Zealanders like myself, Australia might not seem as exotic, but its proximity and relative size make it a powerful magnet, resulting in an ongoing net migration of New Zealanders to Australia. Although outsiders usually assume that Australia and New Zealand are almost identical, this is very far from true. They're further apart than most Americans expect - around 1500 miles at the nearest points, and geographically they're a world apart. New Zealand is situated on the edge of two tectonic plates, resulting in a landscape of mountains, volcanoes and other spectacular scenery, but Australia is in the middle of a plate, which means that it is geologically stable and any high mountains which once existed have had ample time to be reduced to mere hills. That's why Ayer's Rock is one of the few internationally famous landscapes in Australia, which is almost exactly the same size as the continental United States. This is not really a country to come to for spectacular scenery. Similarly, there are virtually no similarities between the wildlife of both countries - New Zealand was historically a land of birds with no land mammals at all and virtually no dangerous or toxic animals, whereas Australia's famous marsupials live in the midst of a menagerie of the world's most venomous snakes, spiders and sea creatures.
However, there are plenty of attractions for people willing to make the 15 hour haul from Los Angeles or the 23 hour haul from London. As already mentioned, there is the laidback culture to enjoy for those people who find that sort of thing entertaining. The largest city, Sydney, possesses a magnificent harbour in addition to various cultural and historical sites of interest, but it's also very worthwhile to explore other major cities, which have their own sights as well as a wide variety of options for Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth hotels where you can base yourself.
That weird wildlife is also well worth making an effort to see, and the Great Barrier Reef stretching along the north-eastern coast provides both sunbathing opportunites and a chance to see magnificent corals and marine life. The rainforest in this area sounds tantalizing, but most tourists who don't already have a special interest in birds, insects and other such fauna will find that it reveals its treasures very sparingly.
To avoid disappointment it's sensible to consider the long distances involved in travelling around such a vast country, since this isn't a place you can see in just a week or two. Cool temperate rainforest in the far south on the lush and wet island of Tasmania is mirrored in the far north by tropical rainforest in the Kakadu and far north Queensland. Over a third of the country lies within the tropics, and the enormous Red Centre of this country is desert, inhabited largely by the Aborigines who happily chose to live in these areas thousands of years ago. The prospect of visiting the oasis of Alice Springs and Ayers Rock might seem appealing when you're sitting at home, but is it really worth flying by jet for three or four hours to see one rock, even if it is very big? And is it worth making a six hour flight from Sydney on the east coast to Perth on the west coast?