Queensland is Australia's take on paradise. Warm, laidback and heartbreakingly beautiful, its sweep of pristine beaches, luxuriant jungle and ethereal peaks conjure a southern Shangri-La.
Seven times the size of Great Britain and two and a half times the size of Texas, Queensland is a geographic behemoth. No other Australian state matches its natural diversity, an impressive collection of 27 bioregions supporting over 1000 ecosystem types, from rainforests and wetlands, to savannas, dry tropics, rangelands and the coast. Five of Australia’s eleven World Heritage-listed natural sites are found here, including the world wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef. Punctuating these spectacular landscapes is a string of vibrant cities and laid-back towns, from sophisticated Brisbane and wham-glam Gold Coast, to the sultry, laid-back chic of Noosa and Port Douglas.
In short, Queensland is one, huge, adrenalin-pumping playground. Should you snorkel the inimitable Great Barrier Reef, ride waves in Caloundra, or sand-board dunes on Fraser Island? Then again, you could always sail across azure Whitsunday waters, seek glow worms in a Gold Coast Hinterland rainforest, or glide silently through the Noosa Everglades. The possibilities are virtually endless, from furious, fast-paced thrills to reflective, restorative interludes. Of course, if it’s all just too overwhelming, Queensland's heavenly beaches are the perfect place to do sweet nada.
On Your Plate & In Your Glass
Enviable produce, bold chefs and artisan producers are sharpening Queensland's culinary cred. Hatted restaurants, on-point cafes and rambling farmers’ markets underscore Brisbane, a city now also exploding with polished microbreweries, wine bars and specialist cocktail dens. Standout eateries are adding fresh buzz on both the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, the latter region now also famous for its craft-beer boom. Not that it’s all ales, sours and saisons. Queensland’s Granite Belt is Australia’s most experimental wine region, pouring everything from luscious Saperavi to amphora-fermented Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne blends. Come thirsty. Come famished.
Contrary to the jokes bandied down south, Queensland and culture are not mutually exclusive. Brisbane is the state's undisputed arts epicentre, home to a string of Australian masterpieces, the nation's largest gallery of contemporary art, not to mention a cracking live-music scene. World-renowned street artists reinvigorate walls in Brisbane and Toowoomba, while tenors bellow at Ballandean's annual Opera in the Vineyard festival. Most unique, however, is Queensland's rich indigenous cultures, which offer extraordinary insight into this ancient land through art, dance and guided tours across the state, from Currumbin to Cooktown.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Queensland.
One of of Australia's most photogenic and hyped beaches, Whitehaven is a pristine 4.3 mile-long (7km) stretch of blinding sand (at 98% pure silica, some of the whitest in the world) framed by lush vegetation and a brilliant blue sea. From Hill Inlet at the northern end of the beach, the swirling pattern of dazzling sand through the turquoise and aquamarine water paints a magical picture. How do I get there? Whitehaven beach is just a half-hour catamaran trip away from Hamilton Island. Helicopter and seaplane tours are available for those in search of the perfect aerial shot. Also offering good snorkelling, Whitehaven beach tours are available from nearly all Airlie-based operators. Can I stay overnight on Whitehaven Beach? You can be lulled to sleep by the ocean if you hire a boat and anchor just off the beach. For those who'd prefer dry land, camping options are available on the southern side of Whitehaven Beach. Book ahead via a national park camping website to ensure you're not disappointed.
These Heritage-listed gardens, begun in 1873, are a beautiful escape from often-sweltering Rockhampton, with tropical and subtropical rainforest, landscaped gardens and lily-covered lagoons. The formal Japanese garden is delightfully restful, there's a cafe, and the small, well-kept zoo has koalas, lion-tailed macaques, Asian small-clawed otters, dingoes, chimpanzees, a walk-through aviary and more. Tickets and Information Admission to the gardens (open 6am to sunset) and the zoo (open 8am to 4.30pm) is free. Guided tours are available for a fee and must be booked in advance. The cafe is open 8am to 5pm and there is ample space available for a picnic if you'd prefer. Domestic animals are not permitted within the gardens.
The largest of the paradisaical group to which it gives its name, Whitsunday Island is ruggedly forested, and surrounded by clear teal waters and coral gardens. Its most visited site is the dazzling 7km-long Whitehaven Beach – one of Australia's finest – visited by pretty much every sailing/snorkelling tour from Airlie Beach but still managing to seem uncrowded. The more intrepid will also enjoy the Hill Inlet lookout (for epic lagoon views) at the north end of Whitehaven Beach. There are six basic camp sites on the island, some with more shade than others. It's hard to beat the Whitehaven Beach camp site for its five-star location. Book camp sites online with Queensland Parks & Wildlife, and see Scamper for camping transfers ($105 to $155 return per person).
In the southeast corner of Daintree National Park, 5km west of Mossman town, Mossman Gorge forms part of the traditional lands of the Kuku Yalanji people. The gorge is a boulder-strewn valley where sparkling water washes over ancient rocks and passes through dense rainforest. Taking a Dreamtime Gorge Walk with an indigenous guide is the best way to explore. Otherwise, it's 4km by road from the visitor centre to a viewpoint and swimming hole; depending on conditions, swimming may not be permitted. You can walk the 4km, but visitors are encouraged to take the shuttle (adult/child/family return $11.80/5.90/29.50, every 15 minutes). There are several kilometres of walking trails on boardwalks and a picnic area at the gorge, but no camping.
About 12km south of Laura look out for the badly signposted turn-off to the Split Rock Gallery, the only rock-art site open to the public without a guide. The sandstone escarpments here are covered with paintings thought to date back 14,000 years. If there are no tour groups around, it can be quite a surreal experience to walk the path up the hillside in silence, solitude and isolation, before coming upon the various other-worldly 'galleries' in the rock faces. There's a real sense of the sacred at Split Rock: it's both eerie and breathtaking.
Riddling the Berserker Range some 24km north of Rockhampton, this vast cave complex is one of the Capricorn Coast's foremost attractions. Technically not subterranean (they were formed by water working on the limestone of an ancient reef, thrust upward by tectonic pressure) they contain cave coral, stalactites, dangling fig-tree roots and little insectivorous bats. The most popular (one-hour) tour showcases their remarkable acoustics with a classical-music recording in Cathedral Cave, and is suitable for all ages and most fitness levels. The cathedral has become a popular wedding spot, and hosts several concerts throughout the year. In December, around the summer solstice (1 December to 14 January), sunlight beams through a 14m vertical shaft into Belfry Cave, creating an electrifying light show. If you stand directly below the beam, reflected sunlight colours the whole cavern with whatever colour you’re wearing. There are other tours that focus on palaeontology and fossils. Also, daring spelunkers over 16 years old and of decent fitness can book a two-hour ‘adventure tour’ ($90), which has you crawling through tight spots with names such as ‘Fat Man’s Misery’. A less strenuous family version of this tour is also offered (adult/child $50/40; also two hours long). The Capricorn Caves complex has barbecue areas, a pool, a kiosk and accommodation (powered sites $35, cabins from $150).
Should you sunbake on a sandy beach, saunter through a rainforest, or eye-up a Nepalese peace pagoda? You can do all three in this 17.5-hectare park overlooking the city centre. Its canopied walkways lead to performance spaces, lush lawns, eateries and bars, and regular free events ranging from fitness classes to film screenings. The star attractions are Streets Beach, an artificial, lagoon-style swimming beach (packed on weekends); and the near-60m-high Wheel of Brisbane, delivering 360-degree views of town. Also in the parklands is Stanley St Plaza, a renovated section of historic Stanley St lined with mainstream cafes, restaurants, a handful of shops and a bustling pub. On Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, the plaza hosts the tourist-heavy Collective Markets South Bank, peddling everything from artisan leather wallets and breezy summer frocks to prints, skincare and contemporary handmade jewellery. Close by, South Bank Piazza is an outdoor performance space offering year-round events.
Extending from Lake Cootharaba north to Rainbow Beach, this 54,000 hectare section of national park offers wide ocean beaches, soaring cliffs of richly coloured sands, pristine bushland, heathland, mangroves and rainforest, all of which are rich in bird life, including rarities such as the red goshawk and the grass owl. One of the most extraordinary experiences here is driving along the beach from Noosa North Shore to Double Island Point, around 50km to the north. The route is only accessible to 4WDs with a vehicle permit (available from www.npsr.qld.gov.au) and forms part of the Great Beach Drive, a spectacular coastal touring route linking Noosa and Hervey Bay. At Double Island Point, a 1.1km-long walking trail leads up to spectacular ocean views and a lighthouse dating back to 1884. From June to October, it's also a prime place for spotting majestic humpback whales. From the Double Island Point section of the beach, a 4WD track cuts across the point to the edge of a large tidal lake (perfect for kids and less confident swimmers) and then along Rainbow Beach to the town of Rainbow Beach, passing along the way spectacular coloured cliffs made of ancient, richly oxidised sands in over 70 earthy shades. According to local Indigenous legend, the sands obtained their hues when Yiningie (a spirit represented by a rainbow) plunged into the cliffs after fighting an evil tribesman. The black sand is rutile, once locally mined to make titanium for American space technology. Great Beach Drive aside, another memorable way to explore the national park is by boat or canoe along the numerous tributaries of the Noosa River. Boats can be hired from Tewantin and Noosa (along Gympie Tce), Boreen Point and Elanda Point on Lake Cootharaba. There are also some fantastic walking trails starting from Elanda Point on the shore of Lake Cootharaba, including the 46km Cooloola Wilderness Trail to Rainbow Beach and a 7km trail to Kinaba.
On 11 February 1861 the exhausted party of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills set up camp close to the seasonal Little Blynoe River, in the hinterland of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in their attempt to cross Australia from south to north. It was the northernmost point of their ill-fated expedition. At the site itself, plaques mark the trees 'blazed' (marked) by the party to prove that they had made it this far, while kangaroos are often found nearby. To get here, take the Cloncurry-Normanton road (known as the Burke Developmental Road) south for 5km, then take the turn-off west towards Burketown. After around 30km (sealed all the way), a signpost to Camp 119 points south off the road; although unsealed and slightly corrugated when we visited, the road should be fine in a 2WD vehicle, except after rain. After 2km, there's a car park, from where you'll need to walk the remaining 300m, with interpretative panels along the way.