Unforgettable road trips on Australia’s East Coast
Australia’s East Coast offers plenty to get excited about for road-tripping explorers. Along sun-bleached blacktop, you’ll find picture-perfect beaches, hip cities, lush rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and abundant native wildlife. Driving routes can meet any interest and range from epic long-haul adventures to pinpoint itineraries of must-do experiences. So pack your surfboard, your hiking boots and your appetite and hit the East Coast road.
The Great Barrier Reef Drive – Cairns to Cape Tribulation
By embarking on this trip, you’ll journey up the coast in far-north Queensland, passing classic old towns and luxe resort hubs with eye-popping Great Barrier Reef views en route. Starting ebullient Cairns, a snorkelling or dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a must. After that, pinball between the city’s botanic gardens, hip restaurants and buzzy bars.
Next up, head inland via gondola cableway or scenic railway to Kuranda for rainforest walks and the storied markets (try some macadamia nuts!). Don’t miss detours to picturesque Millaa Millaa Falls and a rainforest hike in scenic Wooroonooran National Park.
On Cairns’ northern beaches, check yourself into a plush Palm Cove resort, then pull off the road for a photo-op at Rex Lookout above Wangetti Beach further north. Port Douglas in next – an up-tempo holiday hub with fab eateries, bars and further reef-trip diversions.
At Mossman Gorge, lush (and Unesco World Heritage-listed) rainforest enshrouds the photogenic Mossman River: take a guided walk and cool off in a waterhole. At Daintree River, book yourself onto a crocodile-spotting cruise then have lunch in Daintree Village. Cow Bay awaits nearby for a few hours of beachcombing. Last stop is Cape Tribulation, a magnificent collision of rainforest and reef. Spend a few nights at one of the upmarket lodges nooked into the rainforest here.
A tale of two cities – Brisbane to the Gold Coast
Watch your worries fade away as you trek out of the lovingly big-city Brisbane and out into the chilled-out Gold Coast surf towns and northern New South Wales. Before you leave Brisbane, though, you’ll want a couple days to enjoy Queensland’s river-city capital, a semitropical boomtown dappled with brilliant bars, cafes and bookshops (the pillars of civilised society).
Don’t miss the excellent Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), the Brisbane Powerhouse arts hub, craft-beer bars and live tunes in the West End. Save a night on the tiles in hedonistic Fortitude Valley and make time for a ferry trip out to North Stradbroke Island for surfing, sea kayaking and fish-and-chips on the sand. Back on the mainland, scoot west to the Granite Belt region for cool-climate wineries and some boulder-hopping in Girraween National Park.
An hour south of Brisbane, the Gold Coast bares its beachy, brassy soul. The epicentre here is celebratory Surfers Paradise, with its brazen sun and after-dark good times. More relaxed and surf-centric are Burleigh Heads and laid-back Coolangatta. Head a quick 50-minute dash south into New South Wales and you’ll find the alt-lifestyle haven of Byron Bay, home to endless beaches, delightful accommodation, delectable food and more. The local charisma is so strong that many wandering nomads stop in Byron Bay only to never leave.
The Great Beach Drive – Sunshine Coast & Fraser Island
Maybe your idea of a winning road trip depends on access to high-profile outdoor adventure. If so, you want to take on the aptly named Sunshine Coast in southeast Queensland. Start by meandering through the curious geology of the Glass House Mountains, with their breath-robbing panoramas and outstanding rock-climbing. Nearby is the superb Australia Zoo – brilliant if you have the kids in tow (and even if you don’t).
Next up, sunny Mooloolaba has solid surf and chipper beach vibes and boasts fresh catches of local "Mooloolaba King” prawns. Another half-hour north and you’ll reach Noosa and its lush national park (home to sometimes-spotted koalas), river kayaking and a first-class foodie scene.
A couple of hours north is gorgeous Rainbow Beach, full of surfing, fishing, paragliding, hiking, skydiving, horse-riding and more. From here, explore the huge dunes, beach “highways”, bushwalks and crystalline lakes on the World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, the largest sand island on the planet (BYO 4WD, or take a tour).
Looping south, visit historic Maryborough, the birthplace of Mary Poppins author PL Travers; then explore Tin Can Bay, home to an improbable number of sea turtles, dugongs and rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins.
Offshore adventure – Airlie Beach to Magnetic Island
Road trips and islands don’t make obvious pairing, but Queensland’s offshore offerings are so dense that you can survey a good bit of them in one trip linked with unforgettable coastal coastal drives.
Start in Airlie Beach. Here you can cut loose an unending population of travellers before booking a boat trip out to the glorious Whitsunday Islands archipelago. There are myriad Whitsunday daytrip options, but a multiday sail will let you leave your footprints on remote beaches with no one else on them. Don’t miss Whitsunday Island itself and a memorable swim off sublime Whitehaven Beach, often touted as Australia’s prettiest.
After cruising the islands, book a few nights at a swish offshore resort – Hamilton, Hayman and Daydream islands await. Feeling more adventurous? Sign up for an overnight kayaking trip with island camping.
Next you’ll want to head about three hours north to Townsville. Here, promenade along the waterfront, check out the excellent Reef HQ Aquarium, clamber up Castle Hill and lunch into Townsville’s impressive eating and drinking scene (try the seafood, of course). Experienced divers can book a dive on the famous wreck of the SS Yongala offshore.
Wind up your journey on Magnetic Island, an unpretentious isle with easy-going beach villages, rampant wildlife and scenic bushwalking aplenty.
A little bit of everything – Sydney to Melbourne
By now, you’re far from the rugged charms of Queensland, but the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne offers an abundance of national parks, surf beaches, ocean wildlife and disarming small-town vibes.
Sydney is Australia’s biggest and brightest city, offering iconic experiences like the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, harbour ferries to Manly and the bustling Bondi Beach. Just south, though, you’ll find the dramatic cliffs and bushwalks of Royal National Park and the elevated Grand Pacific Drive roadway, arcing out above the ocean for impressive ride.
At Jervis Bay, you’ll find white-sand beaches, cavorting dolphins and national parks. With quick detour inland, you can visit Australia’s capital Canberra to check on proceedings at parliament house and visit the nation’s best museums.
Coastal Narooma has pretty beaches and solid surf. From here, catch a ferry to Montague Island, an important Aboriginal site and an impressive nature reserve. On south-coast NSW, sleepy Eden is famed for whale watching, and don’t miss historic, picture-perfect Central Tilba.
Crossing into Victoria, you can glide through forests, farms and the Gippsland Lakes district to Wilsons Promontory, with its fab bushwalks, camping and beaches. Beyond lies Phillip Island, where penguins, seals and surfers frolic in the brine. Finally, it’s the big smoke – Melbourne.
Southern coastal classic – Melbourne & the Great Ocean Rd
This classic rite-of-passage road trip tracks south from sophisticated Melbourne along the craggy Great Ocean Road – expect lovely little beach towns, great waves and epic scenery. Melbourne has enough to keep frequent-flyers grounded for months: laneway bars, galleries, live music, shopping, coffee culture, Australian Rules football and more. But an hour south, Great Ocean Road beckons.
Start in the surfing mecca of Torquay and check the swell at legendary Bells Beach, then roll into family-focussed Anglesea for a surf lesson and a riverside picnic. Aireys Inlet is just around the bend: tour the lighthouse then spend the night in urbane little Lorne.
West of here, Great Ocean Road gets wiggly and seriously scenic, winding between the churning sea and the forest-clad Otway Ranges. Unwind in the artsy fishing village of Apollo Bay for a few days (great pub!), then swing by Cape Otway to spy some koalas and the iconic lighthouse.
Next up is Port Campbell National Park and its famed Twelve Apostles rock formation: count them from the clifftops or book yourself onto a scenic flight. Scan for whales off the Warrnambool coast, then continue west to the quaint, rather Irish-feeling Port Fairy. The folk festival here every March sends the wee town into hyperdrive!
You might also like:
This article was originally published in November 2016 and updated in September 2020. Get inspired to travel every day by signing up to our daily newsletter.