Despite a lot of rain and the occasional long drive, I really loved the road trip part of our two-week visit to Australia.
While the Legendary Pacific Coast Drive from Sydney to Brisbane seems to be the most popular route along the east coast, I decided to fly from one to the other, and drive up to Airlie Beach from Brisbane instead. Why? Because I absolutely couldn’t leave out a visit to Fraser Island, or the chance to cuddle koalas, or see the beautiful Whitsundays on our first trip to this massive country.
I didn’t find a whole lot of information dedicated to this route though, so ended up doing a lot of leg work to put together the stops, routes and accommodation which formed our week-long trip along the coast. If you’re thinking about driving from Brisbane to Airlie Beach too, then hopefully this post will help you to plan out, or rule out, this journey for yourself.
How to travel the East Coast of Australia
One decision you’ll have to make before you set off is whether you’re going to travel in a car or a camper van. Because it was much cheaper, we decided to spend each night camping, and paid a bit more to upgrade to an SUV instead. This was brilliant as it made the journeys super comfortable, but in hindsight, a camper van would have been even better, mainly because we ended up having to sleep in the back of the car for two nights (thanks, rain!). So, my advice would definitely be to rent a camper van unless you’re on a budget, or are planning to book rooms at each stop.
If you’re really looking to cut costs, or are feeling spontaneous, some rental companies do also offer major discounts when they need a vehicle returned to a specific place by a certain time. This does mean you’ll be dictated by their schedule, but the savings can often be huge if you’re up for it.
The Brisbane to Airlie Beach route
In a nutshell, there are nine main stops I plotted out along the way, which I’d recommend having at least 5 full days to do it in. Depending on how long you do have, you can add a couple of the bonus suggestions I’ve included too.
Brisbane – Noosa (2hrs) – Hervey Bay (2.5hr) – Mon Repos (1.5hr) – Bundaberg (1.5hrs) – Rockhampton (3.5hrs) – Eungella NP (4.5hrs) – Cape Hillsborough (1.5hrs) – Airlie Beach (1.5hrs)
With a beautiful river going through it, Brisbane is the capital city of Queensland. I didn’t get to see much of the city due to time, but the main reason I really wanted to start our road trip here was for the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Like a typical tourist, I really wanted to meet a koala on my first visit to Australia, and if you do too, then Lone Pine is the perfect place to do just that.
A 30mins drive from the airport will get you there, and once you’re inside, hours will pass before you even know it. Lone Pine is so much more than just koalas though, and getting to hand feed their huge mob of kangaroos was one of the best highlights of my trip.
Bonus stop: Glass House Mountains
Located in between Brisbane and Noosa, you can stop at the Glass House Mountains Lookout Track for some sweeping views of the volcanic hills in this area.
Anyone who’s travelled the east coast will tell you how much they loved Noosa, and I can attest to that. There’s plenty to love about this place, and if there’s one stop you should make extra time for along the way, it’s Noosa.
Located only 1.30hr away from Brisbane, Noosa Heads is a charming seaside town along the Sunshine Coast. The main beach here is beautiful and vast, and the nearby national park has some of the best scenic views you’ll see along the coastal walk. Like the rest of my trip, the rain came down on us during our time at the park, but the views here were unbeatable even in the grey weather.
If you head to the northerly tip, there’s also a fairy pool you can swim in! It’s quite well hidden though, so keep your eye out for the makeshift signs when you’re near the point on Google maps.
Back in the town, Hastings Street just off Noosa main beach is lined with boutique shops and cafes, and is a great place to stroll through and stop for brunch.
For budget-friendly camping accommodation in the area, I can recommend Noosa River Holiday Park which has powered sites from just $45/night per car. It has excellent facilities on site, and is located right by the river only a short walk away from the beach.
Bonus stop: Rainbow Beach
A great spot for beach goers, there are coloured sands and incredible sea views here after a short bushwalk. If you head for Carlo Sand Blow, you can also go sandboarding down the dunes.
There’s a nice beach and pier at Hervey Bay, but to be honest, not a whole lot else to do here. So why stop? Because it’s one of the main gateways to Fraser Island, and if you’re travelling between July to November, it’s also one of the best places to join a whale watching tour.
If you’re stopping here overnight, Fraser Lodge had everything we needed close to the seafront, and the Coast Restaurant right across the road from the beach is excellent for dinner.
As the world’s largest sand island, this paradise spot lies not far off from Hervey Bay and is an absolute must-do. A short ferry crossing will take you over to the island which you can actually explore with your own vehicle (as long as it’s a 4×4), but I’d recommend joining a tag-along or small group tour, as the place is huge and somewhat difficult to navigate, especially if you’re not a confident driver. We did a fantastic day trip there with Unique Fraser which I loved and can recommend, but if you have more time, you can also stay overnight on the island which I’m sure would be magical.
It’s only a small coastal town, but if you’re an animal lover like me, then Mon Repos (pronounced with a silent ‘s’) is a great stop to make for the turtle centre there alone. Sadly, we arrived just out of season, but if you come between November and mid-March, you can discover the turtles who come here each year to lay their eggs, and even watch them hatch!
Even without turtles, the beach here is really beautiful and feels untouched – I even spotted a few remaining turtle shells lying in the sand.
One of the main attractions in the small town of Bundaberg (or Bundy, as the locals call it) is the local rum distillery.
Even though I’m not a rum drinker, the story behind Bundaberg Rum is an interesting one – it started over 125 years ago, when the local sugar mills here were producing so much molasses (the waste material left from extracting sugar), that they decided the best solution to get rid of it was to distill it into rum! Today, Bundaberg Rum has won a whole host of awards for its growing selection of drinks.
The distillery is open for tours daily for $28.50 per person, which comes with a museum visit, a one-hour guided tour of the factory, as well as two tasting vouchers in the gift shop afterwards.
We added Rockhampton to our route mainly as a place to stop overnight, but there’s a few things to check out here too.
For meat lovers, Rocky is regarded as the Beef Capital of Australia, and as such, they’re renowned for their steaks. So much so that there are statues of bull breeds across the city, which, as I learnt from a local, people kept stealing the testicles off! Hilarious.
The Capricorn Caves can also found nearby which I’d planned on visiting, but sadly, this is where my guide gets less personal. The reason we had to spend two nights sleeping in the back of the car – and why we never actually made it all the way to Airlie Beach – is because we got caught up in Cyclone Debbie which unfortunately struck earlier this year. The day we were due to drive up to Airlie was the day when the category four cyclone hit the area, and it became very unsafe (and later, impossible) to get there.
I may not have had the opportunity to experience the rest of this post first hand, but I really think this itinerary saves the best till last – something that still makes me extra sad to this day, because I didn’t get to do it myself.
Eungella National Park
It’s a slight detour away from the coast, but I added Eungella NP onto our itinerary as another great wildlife stop. Among the lush rainforest park, you can get back to nature and go spotting for wildlife here, including the shy platypus.
When affordable accommodation and wildlife encounters meet, you get Cape Hillsborough. There’s a campsite here you can stay at for a mere $45 per night, and in the morning, you can wake up early to watch the wild kangaroos on the nearby beach. Perfect.
It used to be a small coastal town, but nowadays, Airlie Beach is a bit of a backpacker paradise (from what I hear). I love how the usual nice weather in Australia allows for outdoor swimming spots, and, along with the beaches, the Airlie Beach Lagoon looks like a perfect spot to relax in.
I’d planned to spend 5 nights here after our road trip, which also included the following day trips and excursions.
Our luxury yacht sailing trip was cancelled along with the rest of our week, but a trip to the Whitsundays was right at the top of my list for the east coast. The views of Whitehaven beach from Hill Inlet looks so incredible, and it comes as no surprise that it’s one of the most popular beaches in Australia.
Great Barrier Reef
Airlie beach is not far from outer GBR, meaning day trips there are popular. While you’re able to join many tour groups who’ll take you out there diving, snorkelling and swimming among the reefs, I splashed out to join the ReefSleep, an overnight adventure where you can camp under the stars after the day time visitors leave. It’s not cheap, but I expect, worth every penny. If you do get to do this, please don’t tell me until I’ve gotten the chance to go back and do it myself. Please, I won’t be able to handle the jealousy.
Have you been to the East Coast of Australia? Have I missed anything? Do you love road trips as much as I do? Tell me in the comments!
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