I’m a big fan of road trips. If you ask me, there’s no better way to explore a country. When I first moved to Australia from Canada, I began planning my first rugged roadie almost immediately and I spent most of my first 6 months working hard to save for a month-long adventure through the East coast state of Queensland.
Initially, I didn’t know much about Queensland, only the important things: it’s pretty much always hot and sunny, and it’s got a sh*t tonne of beaches. Hours of Pinterest pinning and Google Mapping later and Bob’s your uncle, I had an epic Queensland road trip planned!
I pictured myself exploring the state’s beautifully unique coast in a jacked-up 4WD with a rooftop tent, real Aussie style. And that’s exactly what I did with my boyfriend, Rowan.
My Queensland road trip, although nowhere near long enough, was one of the best roadies I’ve ever done. I drove winding coastal roads, spent days in the ocean trying to spot turtles and whales and tanned my usually pale British skin like an absolute pro.
While I touched only a fraction of what Queensland* has to offer, I’ve put together a list of the 15 best destinations and 5 I think you should drive straight past.
*My Queensland road trip starts in Brisbane and only goes as far as Cape Tribulation.
I’m met a lot of people over here who don’t think ‘Brissy’, as it’s locally known, is worth a visit. I disagree. When I first moved to Australia, I touched down in Brisbane and had one day and night there. Granted, I didn’t think it was amazing at first glance but I’ve spent a few more nights there since and I think certain parts of the city have a good thing going on. I especially like the Fortitude Valley, New Farm and South Bank areas. If like me you love a cold, crisp craft beer or a drink with a killer sunset view, there are so many great breweries and rooftop bars to be found. Or, spend days and night perusing markets, drinking in the culture at the Gallery of Modern Art, or chill at the man-made Streets Beach overlooking the Brisbane River.
This Sunshine Coast gem is a big player in the Australian tourism market. It was my home for the first 8 months of my Working Holiday Visa and while it’s a lot smaller than I’m used to, it was the laid-back surf town home I needed after a couple of cold winters in Canada. There’s a lot of money in Noosa so if you’re looking for a cheap road trip spot, stay in one of the beach towns just outside like Coolum or Peregian (although neither of those is exactly cheap either!).
3. Fraser Island
Heading up the coast, no Queensland road trip would be complete without a visit to the incredibly unique Fraser Island. The world’s largest sand island is full of famous attractions like Lake McKenzie and Eli Creek as well as a fair few secret gems. Fraser Island, or K’gari (meaning paradise) as it’s named by the aboriginals, is like no other place you’ll ever visit so it’s definitely one for the Australian travel bucket list.
Read more: Four Days Road-tripping Fraser Island
4. Hervey Bay
This is another small coastal town that a lot of people would tell you to give a miss. I spent a weekend there earlier in the year, and although it was during the off-season, there was still plenty to enjoy. During the winter months (July-November), the town is awash with tourists and tour boats hoping to catch a glimpse of the thousands of humpback whales who stop to play in Hervey Bay’s calm waters on their annual migration from Antarctica. If you visit during this time, you won’t have trouble spotting the whales, but you might have trouble finding an available camp/RV site or hotel room. The rest of the year, it’s pretty chilled.
Read more: A Weekend in Hervey Bay
5. Airlie Beach
This Whitsundays town is popular with tourists, especially backpackers since it’s the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. It’s chilled, with a surf vibe and is chock-a-block full of good food, chic bars, and a pretty good nightlife. That’s all you need to know.
6. Halliday Bay
We accidentally found this little palm tree-lined bay when we couldn’t get into to the campsite we originally wanted in Cape Hillsborough National Park. There isn’t a lot going on in Halliday Bay itself, but there are plenty of walks to enjoy in the nearby National Park. If you’re looking for a cheap campsite overlooking a quiet beach where you can sit beneath the palm trees in peace, Halliday Bay is your baby.
7. Whitsunday Island
Paradise doesn’t come any closer than this island and the famous Whitehaven Beach. Whitsunday Island is the largest of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsunday group. If you want dense rainforest hikes that end up on pristine white silica sand beaches, make sure you fork out the money to visit the island.
8. Palm Cove
This quiet beach town, just north of Cairns, is a lot like Noosa but on a much smaller scale. It’s still got the great sandy beach and the fancy restaurants and bars but has much more of a relaxed vibe. Instagram has made it famous recently though because of its palm tree-lined beach. If you’re a palm tree lover like moi, it should definitely be on your list. If you want more adventure, you can visit a nearby crocodile farm or hire a kayak and explore Double Island.
9. Mission Beach
Many people make a pit-stop at Mission Beach because again, it’s one of those Insta-famous places. The beach is absolutely incredible though. I thought I’d seen the best of Australia’s eastern beaches in the Whitsundays, but I enjoyed Mission Beach more than Whitehaven. It’s so big, you feel like you have it all to yourself, and the backdrop of Dunk Island isn’t exactly an eyesore.
10. Noah Beach
Crossing into crocodile territory was pretty exciting for me. I was hoping to see one, but of course, they’re known for being stealth so sadly, (not so sad for my Mum!) I didn’t. Noah Beach does have saltwater crocodiles so you can’t swim (we did go in for a few dips in the very, very shallow water and got straight back out). As an ocean lover, it was a little disappointing not being able to fully enjoy the ocean, but the beach is off the world’s oldest tropical rainforest so what’s not to love!?
11. Magnetic Island
Maggie Island as it’s affectionately known by the locals sits just off the coast from Townsville. It’s a pretty charming place to spend the day or a few, and with so many walking tracks, beaches and nearby reefs to snorkel, it’s impossible to get bored. You can almost guarantee you’ll see your fair share of wild koalas and who doesn’t want that from their Queensland road trip?
12. Atherton Tablelands
Who knew Australia could be so green!? Turns out there are some rolling countryside hills to be found in the tropical state. While most of my Queensland road trip was tailored to the coastal highlights, I’d read about a waterfall circuit that must be visited, so I ventured inland to see what all the fuss was about. Atherton Tablelands didn’t disappoint. Part of the Great Dividing Range, this nutrient-rich plateau is so diverse that you can be chasing waterfalls one minute and exploring man-made crystal caves the next.
13. Great Barrier Reef
It’s fairly obvious why this entry shouldn’t be ignored on any Australian or Queensland road trip. The reef, which is far more tropical and diverse than I imagined, was definitely a highlight for me. It is still dying though and I saw some pretty sad-looking bleached coral during my hunt for turtles and Nemo. Enjoy it while you can!
14. Cape Tribulation
Another Tropical North Queensland gem, Cape Trib is smack bang in the heart of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. Not only is it bloody beautiful at every turn, but it’s also unique in that it’s the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Enough said, I think.
15. Port Douglas
I only spent a day in Port Douglas due to limited time, and I’m so gutted. What I saw was again, a lot like Noosa, but on a smaller scale. It’s effortlessly chic, chilled and has four miles of famous Australian white sandy beach. Quintessential Queensland road trip town right there.
Now for the ones I recommend you give a miss. They’re still good enough to visit, but if you’re limited on time like I was, I’d spend it elsewhere.
1. Cape Hillsborough Beach
This is a tricky one. Cape Hillsborough National Park is huge and should definitely be explored but I’d recommend giving the beach a miss. It’s been well captured on the Instagram accounts of many an influencer and their loyal following because of the Wallabies and Kangaroos that come out each morning to ‘play’ on the beach. Who doesn’t want to see wild wallabies and roos hopping about everywhere looking cute?! What they don’t tell you is that you’ll be there at sunrise along with every other Tom, Dick and Harry and the park ranger who will be feeding the animals. You’ll all stand behind carefully placed orange cones and take endless photos until the food runs out and the roos hop off to better things. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a great experience, but it was definitely ruined by the hordes of people crowding around and stealing what was expected to be an exciting natural encounter.
Again, I admittedly didn’t spend a great deal of time here, but I was expecting more from all the hype I’d read online and other travel blogs. I guess it’s another perfect example of how Instagram/influencers can ruin a place, but in a different way. It’s still a good coastal town to visit; there are some beautiful beaches but nothing you can’t find in other parts of Queensland.
There are plenty of fun things to do in the outer region of Mackay (Keswick Island, Eungella National Park) but not a lot going on in the city itself. Should you want to add Mackay to your Queensland road trip, the main attractions of Australia’s sugarcane capital are Harbour Beach, it’s urban water park Bluewater Lagoon and the Sarina Sugar Shed.
‘Rocky’, as it’s locally known, is the beef capital of Australia so naturally, it’s whole tourism campaign revolves around bulls. Sure, you can eat a prime cut of steak whilst watching the rodeo, or visit CQ Livestock Exchange, the largest livestock saleyards in the Southern Hemisphere, and buy a stud. Surely that’s on everybody’s Queensland road trip bucket list, right!? Wrong.
OK, if you’re a rum lover you probably should put Bundaberg on your to-visit list. A visit to the Bundaberg Rum distillery is almost definitely the best thing about this city and maybe the nearby Mon Repos Regional Park, which is home to protected sea turtles. Other than that, it seems it’s a pretty uninspiring city along Queensland’s otherwise incredible coast.
Do you have any other recommendations for places to visit or ignore on a Queensland road trip? Share them below.