Australia’s alternative East Coast road trip

Australia is enormous, and there's no sharper way to realise that than embarking on a classic Australian road trip. So come with us on a journey along the east coast of this massive continent - a journey from Sydney to Cairns that dodges the tourist crowds in favour of some alternative treasures.

Setting off from Sydney

Many ignore the slice of New South Wales just north of Sydney in a dash for Coffs Harbour or Byron Bay, but ease off the pedal. Just 3.5 hours out of Sydney, you'll find Worimi Conservation Lands – 35km of golden, shifting dunes perfect for sandboarding – and the deserted beaches of Tomaree National Park (One Mile Beach for surfing; Samurai for stripping – it's a nudist beach). A little further north, Myall Lakes National Park is the place to canoe, bird-spot, see some seals and sleep in a lighthouse. (You can also rent the former lighthouse keeper's cottages at Sugarloaf Point.)

Despite its popularity, don't bypass laidback Byron Bay, but skip the beach bars in favour  of nearby Julian Rocks, a tropical/temperate-mix dive site that attracts manta rays, turtles, dolphins and weird-looking wobbegong sharks. It makes an interesting (if slightly chillier) counterpoint to dives on the Great Barrier Reef further north.

Getting off the Gold Coast

Surfers Paradise really isn't – unless you like your waves backed by high-rise hotels (which ironically shade the beach from the afternoon sun). Instead delve inland for night walks to glowworm caves in Springbrook National Park, and bush hikes through Australia's largest remaining subtropical rainforest at Lamington National Park.

For an alternative take on Queensland's capital of Brisbane, take a dusk riverboat trip to Indooroopilly Island (6km from the city centre) to witness flying foxes in their thousands.

Fraser Island, the world's biggest sand island, is lots of fun but firmly on the coastal crawl. For a quieter offshore getaway continue north to Great Keppel Island, off Yeppoon. The main resort here closed in 2008, leaving a fraction of the tourist beds, which means you'll get pristine beaches and bush trails almost to yourself.

Reef with a difference

Though it seems perverse to turn your back on the Great Barrier Reef, divert inland at Mackay for Eungella National Park. Follow one of the walking trails through this mountainous tract of rainforest, stopping for a swim at the Wheel of Fire Falls. Keep a lookout for a platypuses in Broken River – they're often seen, especially at dawn and dusk, May to August.

Back on the coast the masses gather at Airlie Beach for boat cruises around the Whitsunday Islands. Use this as a departure point for a longer sail to the outer reef, where a three- or four-night trip on a live-aboard boat will weed out the crowds and give you access to unspoilt dive sites.

Coming into Cairns

Find real bush solitude on Hinchinbrook Island, a 50-minute boat ride from Cardwell. Only 40 people at a time are allowed on the island's Thorsborne Trail – a 32km, three- to five-day wilderness hike – so you're guaranteed a bit of peace. But you'll need to be self-sufficient as there is nothing - literally nothing - en route. Just unspoilt forests, streams (watch out for crocs) and broad beaches a-scuttle with hundreds of crabs.

Finally, take the round-about route into Cairns, leaving the main A1 road to swing inland through the Atherton Tablelands. This is Queensland at its most green, and a breath of fresh air from the muggy lowlands. Dip into the Millaa Millaa Falls, spot turtles in Lake Eacham and travel back to 1910 in the time-warp village of Yungaburra – the perfect preparation for rejoining the boisterous, bustling 21st century in Cairns.

For more information, maps and route planning, see Tourism New South Wales and Tourism Queensland.