We’ve lived in Queensland for eight years and love the Sunshine State. Our recent travels took us to some new places, several of which aren’t on the regular tourist map. We thought it might be useful to share these as a suggestion for a road-trip. The basic itinerary revolves around a three week break. We think you need at least this amount of time to get a good flavour of Queensland. However, if you’re really pushed for time you could miss out the destinations that don’t sound as attractive to you. If you’re lucky enough to have longer, we’ve also included some ideas for extending your visit. Don’t forget the scale in Australia, Brisbane to Cairns is a 1700 kilometre drive.
Day 1 – 3: Brisbane
Sydney and Melbourne are on most travellers’ agendas but Brisbane sometimes gets overlooked. This surprises us as it is one of our favourite cities in the world. Brisbane is easy to get around using the City Cats on the river and has a superb climate all year round. There are also world class museums, galleries and restaurants. Make sure you visit the Gallery of Modern Art, (GOMA) and the Museum of Brisbane in City Hall. In the latter, you can take a trip in the old elevator up the clock tower for superb views of the city. Stop for a breather at the city beach in the South Bank Parklands.
A fabulous way to find your way around is with the Brisbane Greeters. This is a free service run by local volunteers who show you around bits of the city you might not otherwise find. Also try and explore some of the inner suburbs. You can read about one of our visits to one of these – Fortitude Valley in ‘Into The Valley’.
Day 4: The Sunshine Coast
Heading north around 70 kilometres you meet the beginning of the Sunshine Coast. At the bottom end is the Moreton Bay region which we visit regularly as you can find out in ‘Staying Alive in Moreton Bay’. You could also visit some of the coastal towns such as Caloundra, Maroochydore or Mooloolaba. We recommend heading away from the coast for a night in the hinterland. Pretty towns such as Montville and Maleny offer lovely places to stay and great produce to take advantage of.
Day 5: Hervey Bay
Maybe stop for breakfast at Noosa before continuing north on the Bruce Highway for just under 200km. Hervey Bay is the collective name for a series of small towns that flow into each other along the waterfront of the bay. Some of their names reference the British heritage of the forefathers as they include Torquay and Scarness. There is a nice walk along the esplanade with a variety of small shops and cafes.
We recommend getting fish and chips from Maddigans and eating it on the ocean front. If you’re feeling energetic you can have a stand up paddle board lesson. As the bay is protected by Fraser Island, it tends to be calmer than the surf spots of the sunshine coast further south. If you visit between mid July to mid November you can take a boat trip out to see migrating humpback whales – an amazing experience.
Day 6 and 7: Fraser Island
A few kilometres south of Hervey Bay is River Heads where you can catch the barge across to Fraser Island. Fraser or Kgarri in the Butchulla language is the world’s largest sand island and you shouldn’t miss visiting when you come to Queensland. There a variety of accommodation options from camping through to the impressive Kingfisher resort. We’ve visited about 8 times and have never grown tired of driving across the sand tracks to beautiful spots such as Lake Mackenzie and Eli Creek.
On the western side of the island, the beach is a gazetted road with an 80 km/h speed limit. If you want to drive you’ll need to hire a four wheel drive vehicle with low range gears. There are plenty of hire depots in Hervey Bay or you can book one at Kingfisher Resort. An alternative is a guided tour in a 4WD bus or private vehicle. This way you’ll have the services of a guide to tell you about the history of the island. If you’re lucky, you might spot an elusive Dingo.
Day 8 – 10: Bundaberg
You may have heard of Bundaberg as the home of the rum or the ginger beer. However, it’s not on everyone’s must visit list and we think that is a real shame. Having lived in the region for eight years we think it’s a brilliant place and have written a number of blog posts about it including a self drive tour. There’s a vibrant CBD, fantastic arts culture and superb coffee, as you can find out if you read our posts about the region, here.
You will easily fill up 2 or 3 days in the region and we’d recommend staying out at the coastal township of Bargara . The largest turtle rookery in Australia is at Mon Repos, the next beach along from Bargara. From November to January you can see turtles coming up to lay eggs there. Eight weeks after they’re laid, the eggs hatch and you can help guide the babies down to the ocean. You can also visit the southern Great Barrier Reef on The Lady Musgrave Experience from Burnett Heads Marina.
Day 11: Drive to Mackay
Many visitors imagine the drive from Brisbane to Cairns will be a picturesque coastal route. This really isn’t the case for most of the journey which is why we recommend on Day 11 you bite the bullet and put some kilometres under your belt. You can read about our trip from Bundaberg to Mackay in ‘G’Day Bruce’. We broke the journey at Gladstone overnight but its perfectly achievable to drive it in one day. Maybe stop for lunch at Rockhampton and that way you’ll drive for around 4 hours in the morning and another 4 in the afternoon. There are plenty of accommodation options and places to eat once you arrive in Mackay, around 750 km north of Bundaberg.
Day 12 – 14: Cape Hillsborough
In the morning we recommend picking up the self guided heritage walk from the Visitor Information Centre and find out about the history of Mackay. After lunch, it’s a short 50 km drive to Cape Hillsborough, a stunningly beautiful spot. At the Cape Hillsborough Tourist Park you can either camp or hire a cabin. Get up early the next day to watch kangaroos gather on the beach as the sun rises. A definite bucket list experience. Whilst in Cape Hillsborough there are a variety of walks around the coast or you can take a side trip to Eungella National Park to watch platypuses in the wild. You can read about our visit to Cape Hillsborough in ‘Macropods and Monotremes’.
Day 15 – 17: Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays
Airlie beach is a destination favoured by many travellers to Queensland and has a bit of a reputation as a backpacker haunt. Don’t let that put you off. We discovered a lovely township with a strong community spirit and wrote about it in ‘What’s Red and White and can be spotted in Airlie Beach in July’. The main draw is of course, The Whitsunday Islands. There are many tour operators and ways to visit them. We recommend The Lady Enid, a traditional sailing boat. Around Airlie Beach take the time to explore less well known spots such as Coral Beach.
Day 18 – 21: Cairns and Tropical North Queensland
Cairns is world famous as the place to go to see The Great Barrier Reef. Naturally, you’ll want to take a tour out and snorkel amongst the coral. However, Cairns is much more than that. As a result of the multi-national visitors and workforce it has a more cosmopolitan feel than many regional cities. There is a great food scene and superb local museum. In the Cairns hinterland is the rainforest village of Kuranda and just to the north, the popular beach township, Palm Cove.
You can read about our visit in ‘Red Jeep, Silver Jeep’. If you get chance, take the time to drive further northwards up the Captain Cook Highway. We’d argue that this the views are just as stunning as The Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Spend a few hours at Port Douglas or if you can stretch your time, head further north to Cooktown. James Cook spent seven weeks here making repairs to The Endeavour. You can find out more in our post; ‘Ants Bums, The Sexchange Hotel and The Sisters of Mercy’.
Got More Time?
Three weeks is a great amount of time to spend in Queensland but you’ll still only really experience a small amount of the state. Here are some ideas if you’ve got more time, and we highly recommend that you do stay longer.
Townsville and Magnetic Island
If you can stay a couple more days, break your journey between Airlie Beach and Cairns at Townsville. There is a great variety of places to stay, eat and drink and a vibrant arts culture. A short ferry ride takes you over to Magnetic Island which you can explore by bus or hire a Mini Moke to drive yourself. There’s a fairly good chance of seeing Koalas in the wild on the island too. Read about our visit there in ‘The Specials’.
It is an achievement to reach the northernmost point on the Australian mainland at the tip of Cape York. If you choose to drive you’ll need a four wheel drive vehicle to make the most of it. There are operators in Cairns where you can rent if you don’t own one. We spent a fabulous 18 days in a tagalong convoy which we wrote about in our Cape York Adventure; Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
If you don’t want to drive, you can fly from Cairns to Bamaga near the tip with Regional Express Airlines. For an alternative method of transport, book a passage on a supply ship. Sea Swift’s Trinity Bay ship travels from Cairns to the tip via the Torres Strait Islands weekly. The ship’s primary role is to deliver supplies to townships along the way. However, it also takes a number of passengers on a mini cruise.
Central West Queensland
If you’re not flying onwards from Cairns, consider driving back a different way. Travelling one of the inland routes through Queensland gives you a completely different perspective on the state. West of Cairns you drive over The Great Dividing Range and into the stunning Atherton Tablelands. Heading south you can visit outback towns such as Winton, home of Waltzing Matilda. We really enjoyed outback Queensland as you can discover in ‘Trains, Planes, Automobiles……and Dinosaurs’.
South West Queensland
Around 120km west of Brisbane is Queensland’s largest inland city, Toowoomba. We visited the famous Carnival of Flowers which is held every September and wrote about it in; ‘Flowery Twats’ and ‘Sex and the City’. We’d recommend you check out the carnival as it’s a great weekend with plenty of music, food and drink as well as the flowers. Just 2 hours south of Toowoomba are Stanthorpe and Ballandean, the heart of the Granite Belt. This is Queensland’s coldest area and is famous for the produce grown there including apples and grapes. The latter are turned into wine by some of the country’s quirkiest wineries. The Strange Bird Wine Trail is definitely worth a visit. We did, and wrote about it in ‘Swallow Don’t Spit’
So there you have it. Plenty to keep you occupied in the sunshine state of Queensland. You’ll have a great time if you visit for two or three weeks but an even better one if you stay for four, five or six.