What’s not to love about a roadtrip that hugs a totally natural wonder of the world - the Great Barrier Reef? There’s no shortage of jumping-off points along the Big Pacific Coast Touring Route to make sure you cover as much of this tropical, sea-life paradise as possible. And back on the mainland, there’s a bunch of kitschy Big Things this stretch of road is known for like the Big Mango in Bowen or the Giant Gumboot in Australia’s wettest town of Tully. There’s also ridiculously gorgeous rainforests, gold-rush towns stuck in a time-warp and the most bodacious selection of seafood to sample on your way as you travel across two states, from Sydney in New South Wales to Cairns in far north Queensland.
And if you can, a short ferry ride off the coast of Queensland will take you to one of the best beaches on the planet, Whitehaven, in The Whitsundays.
Ease into the Big Pacific Coast drive as you weave through the northern outskirts of Sydney and head towards the golden sands and relaxed vibes of the Central Coast. Your first port of call should be Forresters Beach - a long, golden-hued bay perfect for surfers and families looking for a picnic lunch and a spot of sand-castle building. As afternoon approaches, head a little further north to The Entrance - a small NSW town surrounded by beaches, lakes and lagoons. This popular holiday spot is best known for the huge pelican population that converge on Memorial Park every day at 3.30pm for their daily feeding. This has been a tradition for the past 20 years as the local fish and chip shop initially fed the scraps to the birds, but now the council and sponsors feed the birds every day, and whilst it is a great tourist draw card, it also gives them the ability to monitor the birds health and assist if any of them have fishing hooks or lines caught in their gullets or wings.
If the water is still beckoning, head towards Tuggerah Lake, the largest of three lakes that comprise the Tuggerah Lakes wetland system, where you’ll have the choice of swimming, water-skiing or fishing in the lake or the beach at the front of the town. The Lakes immediate surrounds include the Munmorah State Conservation Area and most of the Wyrrabalong National Park which has been identified as an Important Bird Area, because the shallow waters have seagrass beds which attract large numbers of waterbirds such as sharp tailed sandpipers and chestnut teals.
To stay for a few days, you can overnight in one of the holiday parks or hotels dotting the coastline.
Head out early to make it to Newcastle in time to sample one of the meals Australia does best - brunch. The burgeoning cafe scene in Newcastle will leave you with no shortage of options. Try the decadent fig, pear and yoghurt flatbread at popular brunch spot Three Beans or if you’re after an epic seaside view, head to Merewether Surfhouse for ricotta pancakes or a raw breakfast salad.
After brunch, make your way towards the Hunter Valley for an afternoon of wine tasting at some of the 120 wineries that make up the region. Leave the car behind and hop on one of the many wine tasting tours to let the experts guide you through the tasting notes of some of the best wines the region has to offer like the Semillion at Audrey Wilkinson Winery or the chardonnay at Brokenwood Wines.
Finish your afternoon at Harkham Winery - home to some of the region’s most delicious, sustainably farmed wine. The best part about finishing your day here is you won’t have to worry about driving to your accommodation, they have rooms available right on site.
It’s time to head back to the coast, towards the 26 sandy beaches and idyllic inlets that make up the holiday resort spot of Port Stephens. First off is a stop at Nelson Bay where you can hop on a dolphin or whale watching cruise, with Moonshadow TQC Cruises, an Advanced Ecotourism operator, to get up close to Port Stephens’ most playful residents. Next pick up a snorkel or your diving gear and head to Fly Point - Halifax Park Aquatic Reserve which is filled with an array of colourful marine life. Fish are so abundant in this spot, you’ll have them swimming around your legs as soon as you enter the water! And each summer juvenile tropical fish appear, including butterfly fish, damsel fish, wrasses and butterfly cod. Venture a little further into the deep blue to see octopus, giant blue gropers, rays or if you’re very lucky, a majestic seahorse. But please remember this is a protected marine reserve so there’s no fishing allowed.
Ten minutes from Nelson Bay is Worimi Conservation Lands - a 4,200 hectare area filled with Australia’s largest sand dune system. There are a number of ways to get acquainted with this unique terrain. Consider a guided 4WD tour or explore the dunes from the comfort of your own car (provided you purchase a beach vehicle permit first). Our pick for the most thrilling way to explore this area is stand-up sandboarding - think snowboarding but on sand!
If it’s a spot of fishing you’re after, head toward the freshwater barrier estuary known as Myall River. Here you’ll find plenty of top spots to drop a line to fish for bream or mullet.
And then spend the night seaside at one of the region’s plentiful holiday parks such as Nelson Bay or Fingal Bay.
Consider a detour inland to explore the dense rainforests and hidden waterfalls of Barrington Tops National Park. Forming part of the Gondwana Rainforest of Australia World Heritage Area, Barrington is carved out of ancient volcanic flows and as a national park it protects one of the largest temperate rainforests in Australia as well as a wide range of animals and birds. A bushwalkers paradise, there are a myriad of walks perfect for the whole family, as well as lots of fishing spots and amazing wildlife spotting. If time is on your side, consider an overnight hike or camp at one of the 5 camps grounds dotted around the park.
If you’d prefer to head straight for Coffs Harbour, keep on the highway and head towards Port Macquarie for a camel ride along the beach with Port Macquarie Camel Safaris.
Or venture further north to get to the beaches at Crescent Head - a favourite surfing spot for longboard riders from around the world as it’s well known as having one of the best right hand point breaks in the world.
And if you’re here in May you’ll be in time to catch the Malibu Classic. The laid-back coastal town at Crescent Head has plenty of spots where you can hire a board or the instructors at the local surf camp can help you brush up on your skills before you take on the famous right-hand break.
As you get closer towards Coffs Harbour, make a stop at the picturesque old-world town of Bellingen. Wander around the eclectic shops, stop in at an art gallery or enjoy a meal at one of the many organic restaurants lining the main street. On the third Saturday of every month you can catch the Belligen Markets where you can pick up fresh tasty treats straight from the garden or kitchen. The town is also known as an art and culture hot spot, hosting a number of musical and literary festivals throughout the year.
As you drive in to Coffs Harbour, keep an eye out for the Big Banana. It’s not exactly hard to miss and has been stopping traffic since 1964.
After watching the wonders of the sea, it’s time to venture inland to explore the wilderness at Nymboida National Park. Canoe the challenging rapids or take a hike through the majestic rainforest which will afford you loads of opportunities to spot the wonderful birdlife, like the white bellied sea eagle, and view the dramatic rock formations of the park. Stay a while and camp at the picturesque campground on the banks of the Nymbodia River - the perfect place for a dip during the balmy summer months.
Heading north, stop off at Ballina for a seafood lunch and to see the Big Prawn, one of Australia’s iconic “big things”. Then it’s time to get the surfboard out to catch a wave at Lennox Point, located at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach, which is regarded by some as Australia’s best right hand break.
Lennox Head is a great little seaside town with the glorious tree lined Lake Ainsworth just a short stroll from the beach. But the beach itself is a huge draw card as dolphins often join the surfers playing in the waves and between May and November you can spot whales cruising up the coast on their annual migration.
You might decide that your final stop for the day is Byron Bay - a laid-back, beach-side paradise that attracts former city-dwellers, surfers and the odd celebrity. You’ll be sure to find accommodation to suit your style and budget. Everything is on offer here, from holiday parks and backpackers to luxury resorts and eco-retreats.
If you’re an early riser, check out the sunrise from the Byron Bay lighthouse on Cape Byron - Australia’s most easterly point. The early start will be worth it especially if you’re lucky enough to spot a dolphin swimming in the bay or humpback whales, as their migration brings them by this part of Australia between May and November.
After the early start, you’ll be ready for breakfast at one of the many eco-conscious cafes on offer. Nothing incorporates the foodie aesthetic of Byron quite like The Farm - a 32 hectare sustainable farm with onsite restaurant. Make sure you have plenty of time so you can wander the farm, meet the animals who range happily around the farm supplying, helping nourish the veggie gardens and clients alike.
When you’re ready to say goodbye to Byron, head north for Murwillumbah for some good, old-fashioned country charm and a dose of Art Deco architecture. This charming town is nestled amongst rolling green hills, banana and sugarcane plantations. Spend the afternoon exploring the great galleries and eateries or laze the afternoon away with a picnic by the river.
Before you reach the glittering Gold Coast, check out the natural swimming holes at Currumbin Rock Pools. Just a quick drive from Currumbin Beach (15 minutes or so) the drive itself is worth it as Currumbin Creek Road follows the creek through the picturesque Currumbin Valley. Take a dip, lounge on the rocks, or pack a picnic as this is the spot locals head to if they need to escape the Gold Coast heat.
Now it’s time to leap back into your car and head to the Gold Coast for an early evening stroll through Broadbeach before finding your accommodation at a beachfront skyscraper or family-friendly resort.
There’s no shortage of fun-filled attractions to fill an entire week in the Gold Coast. Try one of the big ticket theme parks like Dream World or Movie World or hire a surfboard and ride the waves at Broadbeach, Kirra and Main Beach.
Pick up a snorkel or your diving gear and head to Southport Spit where you’ll find the Scottish Prince wreck lying around 800 metres from the beach. Spot crayfish, shovelnose rays, as well as leopard and wobbegong sharks swimming past the ship’s hull. Next check out the artificial reef at Narrowneck Beach. You’ll find this unique structure, made from geotextile containers, directly in front of the lifeguard tower. The structure was put in place as part of an effort to reduce beach erosion but it’s now become a thriving reef where pineapple fish, shrimp, octopus and more have set up shop.
For a taste of adventure, venture further out to the TreeTop Challenge Adventure Park where you’ll be able to fly over stunning rainforest and hang suspended among the tree tops of Mount Tamborine. on Australia’s largest guided zipline. There are 11 huge zip lines, 6 adventure courses and a high ropes course to keep the adrenaline going throughout the day.
After sailing through the tree tops come down to earth and head back towards the Gold Coast (for about an hour) to spend some time wandering around the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, (Eco Certified in Advanced Eco Tourism) checking out the animals in their natural habitat and viewing the wildlife hospital which looks after thousands of sick wild animals each year before releasing them back into the wild. (They also have a TreeTop Challenge within the sanctuary so you could always fly above the crocodiles and kangaroos if you felt so inclined.)
Head north on the Bruce Highway where you’ll pass by Ewen Maddock Dam, the perfect spot for a morning walk and picnic lunch. Otherwise keep going to nearby Baroon Pocket Dam, the starting point for the Sunshine Coast Hinterland Great Walk. This is a great place to stop if you’d prefer a morning of fishing and swimming. Or you can opt for a shorter half or full day walk on the first leg of this glorious hinterland walk over the .
If you’re travelling through on a Wednesday or Saturday, take the inland route past Eumundi where you’ll be able to sample what’s on offer at their famous markets. It’s a foodies dream stop as they have fresh fruit and vegies, bread, cheeses, laksa, seafood, paella, coffee, chocolate, cakes, old fashioned lemonade - everything you need for a picnic or a pick me up.
Northwards takes you to Noosa for an afternoon of shopping at the stylish boutiques or indulge in a feast at one of the fabulous cafes or restaurants or have the ultimate gratification with a spa treatment at one of the numerous spa and wellness centres.
Tin Can Bay conjures various industrial images, but it’s a great place to stop as you can have the opportunity of a lifetime and hand feed the humpback dolphins who visit the Barnacles Dolphin Centre daily to breakfast on fresh fish. This is an extraordinary experience to interact with wildlife. And because the dolphins are wild the centre and volunteers who manage the experience have several easy to follow rules to ensure the experience is a positive one for both humans and dolphins alike. To ensure you don’t miss out, get there early as the viewing time is from 7am - 8am and feeding time starts at 8am sharp.
Keep climbing further north until you reach Maryborough - an historical gem of a town filled with preserved colonial streets and heritage architecture. Grab a meal at one of the vintage pubs in the wharf district before heading to Fraser Island. (Fraser Island is a trip in it's own right, so if you're planning on staying there for several days - which is an excellent idea - then check out our Fraser Island trip guide.)
If you're staying on the mainland continue your journey to Bundaberg. This historic sugar cane town is best known for its famous rum. You can take a tour of the distillery and the nearby ginger beer factory, or simply stock up for the roadtrip.
And if you’re in the area from November to late March, do visit Mon Repos Beach where the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the Eastern Australian mainland heave themselves up the beach to find a safe spot to dig their nests and lay their eggs. And then 6-8 weeks later the hatchlings scurry down towards the sea. You can go, with a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger, on a guided nighttime tour to see all of this and learn about these amazing endangered animals and the conservation efforts that are undertaken to help ensure their successful breeding. Bookings are essential so please make sure you book in advance.
Whilst you can’t swim with the turtles in Bundaberg you can take a day trip out to Lady Musgrave Island or Lady Elliot Island for snorkelling and diving. See coral reefs and tons of colourful tropical fish, giant clams, dolphins, turtles and a large population of Manta Rays.
Use Rockhampton as a base to take a cruise out to Great Keppel Island - a secluded paradise on the southern side of the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the cruise operators, including Freedom Fast Cats, offer “boom netting” - the latest craze sweeping the Great Barrier Reef which involves riding in a secure net that is attached to the back of the boat. Sit back and hold on tight as you glide past spectacular reefs and idyllic islands.
When you’re back on the mainland, drive north to Capricorn Caves - a series of limestone formations set on top of a ridge that were discovered in 1881. You can choose one of a range of informative guided cave tours that include Queensland Museum’s palaeontology dig site and marine fossils cave. Otherwise you can opt for wilder cave adventures that will see you crawling through shafts and tunnels in the fragile cave environment or for the bold, abseil down the rockface and into the cave with this Advanced Eco tourism certified experience.
Further north will take you through volcanic outcrops and pineapple farms, to Byfield National Park. This massive 15,000 hectare park has gorgeous beaches, towering parabolic sand dunes, eucalypt woodlands, rainforests, the rugged granite pinnacles of The Peaks and Mt Atherton and a diverse population of wildlife and many migratory birds. There are several campgrounds, one with basic facilities, but you do need a permit and, as always, please ensure you have minimum impact and take all of your rubbish with you then you leave. The walks are amazing and the swimming is great.
The park is suitable for 4WD’s and the adventures to be had are awesome - although they do require sand driving experience and a Livingstone Shire Council permit for beach driving.
If you fancy sharing a beach with no one else except a bunch of curious kangaroos and wallabies, head on north to Cape Hillsborough National Park. The beach and surrounding rainforests are filled with wildlife including possums, bush turkeys and echidnas and they fringe the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Also definitely noteworthy is the Diversity boardwalk and Yuibera plant trail. These two short walks will give you an understanding of the Yuibera’s traditional way of life and their connection to this land.
While you’re here, a day trip to the Whitsundays from Proserpine or Airlie Beach is a smashing idea. Jump on a yacht, a jetski, an ocean raft, a luxury launch, or set the sails (or simply relax on deck) of a tall ship, and cruise around some of the more secluded of the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays. There are a number of tour operators offering cruises from the backpacker-style trips to the more luxurious private charters, the choice is yours, but do be sure to check out the bleached white sands of the 7km long Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.
Back on the mainland, head further up the coast, past mango orchards and sugar plantations, (and the giant mango in Bowen). And when you get to Townsville, head straight to Castle Hill - the heritage listed, giant pink granite hill in the centre of the city. This is the best place around to stretch your legs and get your bearings from the 360 degree views at the top of the hill. It’s also the perfect place to capture a pink-hued Queensland sunset.
There’s no shortage of national parks and tropical islands to explore along the 350 kilometre stretch from Townsville to Cairns. For something a little different, take a step back in time and head to Charters Towers. This gold-rush town has been preserved in time, complete with a drive-in cinema and grand public buildings lining the wide streets.
Next up, head to Cardwell where you can take a boat over to Hinchinbrook Island to spend some time walking the world famous Thorsborne Trail. If you’ve got the time, consider walking the whole trail over a few days. The 32 km, 4 day trail will lead you up into the cloud covered mountains, through melaeuca swamps and thick, lush rainforest to glorious and pristine beaches teeming with wildlife from crocodiles to dolphins, insects, butterflies, and turtles. It’s a walk for the experienced walker as it is true blue wilderness, and the path can be difficult to traverse in places. Please note that only 40 people can walk the trail at one time, so do book your permit well in advance.
When you’re back on the mainland, continue north and pop in to Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walk to cool-down among the treetops before making a stop at Murdering Point Winery. This is the place to come to sample some tropical fruit wines, ports and liqueurs unlike anything you’ve tried before.
The last stop on this epic journey is Cairns, known as the gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and located on the back doorstep of World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. From here, you can jump on a boat and spend a night getting back to basics by camping on a deserted island such as Dunk, Wheeleter, Snapper or High islands. Or relax and enjoy the vibrant cafes, busy markets or simply choose to hang around on the many glorious beaches.