Less than 30km east of the Bruce Hwy’s rolling sugar-cane and banana plantations, the hamlets that make up greater Mission Beach are hidden among World Heritage rainforest. The rainforest extends right to the Coral Sea, giving this 14km-long palm-fringed stretch of secluded inlets and wide, empty beaches the castaway feel of a tropical island.
It's hard not to love Maggie, as she’s affectionately known, with her coastal, rocky walking trails, gum trees full of dozing koalas (you're likely to spot some), and surrounding bright turquoise seas. While she may rake in the tourists, there are also plenty of permanent residents who live and work here, making it feel more like a laid-back community than a holiday hotspot.
Cardwell & Around
Most of the Bruce Hwy runs several kilometres inland from the coast, so it comes as something of a shock to see the sea lapping right next to the road as you pull into the small town of Cardwell. Most travellers stop here for seasonal fruit picking (check at the backpackers if you're looking for work).
Ingham & Around
Ingham is the proud guardian of the 120-hectare Tyto wetlands, which has 4km of walking trails and attracts around 230 species of birds, including far-flung guests from Siberia and Japan. The locals – hundreds of wallabies – love it too, converging at dawn and dusk. There's an art gallery and library on-site.
Dunk is known to the Djiru Aboriginal people as Coonanglebah (the island of peace and plenty). They're not wrong: this is pretty much your ideal tropical island, with lush jungle, white-sand beaches and impossibly blue water. Walking trails criss-cross (and almost circumnavigate) Dunk: the circuit track (9.
Paluma Range National Park
As the southern gateway to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Paluma Range National Park and the little village of Paluma offer a leafy respite from the tedium of the Bruce Hwy. Running almost all the way from Ingham to Townsville, the park is divided in two parts, the Mt Spec section and the northern Jourama Falls section.
Australia’s largest island national park (399 sq km) is a holy grail for walkers, but it's not easy to get to and advance planning is essential. Granite mountains rise dramatically from the sea. The mainland side is dense with lush tropical vegetation, while long sandy beaches and tangles of mangrove curve around the eastern shore.
Ayr & Around
On the delta of the mighty Burdekin River 90km southeast of Townsville, Ayr is the commercial centre for the rich farmlands of the Burdekin Valley. The town and its surrounds are devoted to the production and harvesting of sugar cane, melons and mangoes. Find out more at the Burdekin visitor centre on the southern side of town.
Mission Beach to Innisfail
The road north from Mission Beach rejoins the Bruce Hwy at El Arish (population 442), from where you can take the direct route north by continuing straight along the Bruce Hwy. Turn-offs lead to beach communities including exquisite Etty Bay, with its wandering cassowaries, rocky headlands, rainforest, large stinger enclosure and a simple but superbly sited caravan park.
Wooroonooran National Park
Part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the rugged rainforest in the Josephine Falls section of Wooroonooran National Park creeps to the peak of Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere (1622m). It provides an exclusive environment for a number of plant and animal species.