Guide | East Coast Road Trip Itinerary
We've already written about traveling the east coast of Australia and what you need to know when planning your trip. But what does the east coast actually include? The typical backpacker starts in Cairns and works down to Sydney, or vice versa. It seems to be slightly more common to travel upwards because many people fly into Sydney when first arriving. Each stop is known for at least one main attraction, although most involve a beautiful beach to lounge around. I include the most popular stops below which most people will, although the coast is lined with small towns and some decide to venture off the well worn track.
Just an hour's drive outside Cairns, Port Douglas is a picturesque resort town popular with locals. It's full of families on holiday and those seeking a bit more calm and quiet than Cairns can offer. While many backpackers skip this town, I'd highly recommend stopping here. Not only is it incredibly beautiful with an amazing beach and cute boutique stores, but it's on the way to Daintree Rainforest, which is the oldest rainforest in the world! One of the most beautiful parts of the Daintree is Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the sea. It was a highlight of our time in Cairns, and definitely worth a day trip through the most northern part of Australia.
Cairns is the center of tropical Far North Queensland and the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. It's a fairly small city known as a massive destination for backpackers and travelers alike. It's biggest attraction is the Great Barrier Reef which, at 2,300 km (1,400 miles), can be seen from space! The Reef stretches from above Cairns down to the middle of the east coast at Lady Elliot Island, although the best place to see it is as far north as possible. Mass coral bleaching has damaged huge sections of the Reef, making it less vibrant and colorful. There are still plenty of beautiful areas to see and the damage is less severe up north. Far North Queensland has so much other natural beauty to offer, including the famous waterfall circuit.
Magnetic Island is just a 20 minute ferry ride from Townsville. It's a small, quiet island that's a great place to relax and recharge after Cairns. Main attractions include feeding wild rock-wallabies at Geoffrey Bay, snorkeling, and a few incredible hikes. Maggie Island was an important defensive post and lookout spot during WWII because it's so close to Townsville, which was a military base. Remnants of this are still scattered throughout the island including the Forts, which is an amazing hike where you can spot wild koalas and lookout over the entire island from above. If hiking isn't your style, Bungalow Bay Koala Village is a hostel and koala sanctuary where you can hold a koala and have your photo taken.
Another resort town just off the famous Whitsunday Islands, Airlie Beach is known as a celebrity vacation destination and nightlife hotspot. It's got a beautiful man-made lagoon, but most traveling through are there to experience the Whitsundays sailing cruises. Ranging from day cruises to longer stints at sea, it's the best place to head out to the islands and see the famous Whitehaven Beach. The Whitsundays are made up of 74 islands that are protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. It's one of the most incredible sights on the coast, and my favorite part of our trip.
Noosa is, guess what, another resort town. But it's my favorite of the many you'll see along the coast. One primary reason is because it's the first nice town you'll see if you start in Cairns. It's full of incredible restaurants and bars and there are so many shops it's almost overwhelming. The beach is the first on the way down the coast that actually has water safe to swim in, which is a big deal after weeks of gorgeous views and no swimming. Noosa National Park is full of amazing hiking trails through the forest or along the coast--Hell's Gates and the unofficially nude Alexandria Beach were our highlights.
Most people leave for Fraser Island from Rainbow Beach, which we skipped. Rainbow is pretty quiet. Go if you'd like, or don't if you don't. You can also spend more time in Noosa and leave from there, which I would suggest. Fraser Island is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. At 122 km (75 miles), it's the largest sand island in the world. And let me emphasize that it's a sand island. From the surface down miles and miles, the island is entirely made of sand. There are around 4 inhabitants of the island now and very few buildings, meaning no electricity or running water for the vast majority of visitors. Most travelers are there for 4WD guided tours where you basically drive around the island in old Land Rovers and camp for a few days. I wouldn't have said I was the camping type until this trip.
The common thought on Brisbane seems to be that it's small and boring, but I completely disagree. Brisbane is the largest city in Queensland and the third largest in Australia. It's about half the size of Melbourne and Sydney by population, but the weather is perfect year-round with around 300 days of sunshine. The Brisbane River flows right through the city, and the Southbank area is lined with restaurants, shops, and the lagoon. The city is full of museums and there's even a koala sanctuary if you missed it on Magnetic Island.
Surfers is the center of tourism in Gold Coast. It's got a massive beach known for it's swells, and arguably the biggest party scene on the east coast. It will also forever be remembered by me as the place I lost my iPhone under the sand on New Year's Eve. Have fun and remember to turn on Find My iPhone.
Byron is known for its chill vibe. It's long been a hangout for hippies and surfers alike, and it's home to Australia's most easterly point at Cape Byron. It's also the first town you'll likely hit in New South Wales, as the east coast falls almost entirely within Queensland. Grab a drink, hang out, and feel the vibe of the 60s. You can also take a quick trip over to Nimbin if you're dying for some cookies ;)
A city that needs no introduction, Sydney is Australia's biggest. People often say you're either a Sydney or a Melbourne person, but I'll let you be the judge. Sydney is great because it's a city that also happens to have some of Australia's most beautiful beaches. It's home to the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and Bondi Beach, and Darling is the world's largest natural harbor. Come here and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.