The Ultimate Australian East Coast Road Trip Itinerary

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Every backpacker that travels to Australia almost certainly does the east coast road trip. It’s highly popular with well-traveled routes. Everyone follows the same road, yet no one has the same experience! Everyone goes to the same places, yet everyone has a different story!

 

Just because it’s a well-known route, don’t be put off if you’re looking for something different. The route, destination and itinerary are not what make the difference, YOU are. So don’t take my east coast trip as gospel. Take some pointers, but make sure to incorporate your own ideas and personality into it. I love the beach and water so my trip was totally centered around that. If there’s one thing I can say about the Australian east coast, it definitely caters to all kinds of people!

I spent two months travelling from Sydney to Cape Tribulation and back again in my own jeep. I’ve put together a summary of my itinerary in the hope of helping some other backpackers have a trip of a lifetime! Have a read here:

 

SYDNEY

Sydney harbour bridge at sunset is just one of the things to add to your list while visiting.

Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset is just one of the things to add to your list while visiting.

What beautiful city! Of course I might be bias because I live here, but there is SO much do and see in Sydney.

How long to spend here:

To really get a feel of Sydney I would suggest four days at least. It’s the biggest city in Australia, with so much to do and see.

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The Opera House is stunning at sunset.

What to do:

The coastal walks of Sydney are my absolute favourite. Take a bus to the famous Bondi Beach and from there head south along the coast, stopping at each beach along the way.

Obviously the Sydney Harbour and Opera House are a must while staying here. Take a ferry from the harbour out Manly Beach and enjoy the views along the way.

Darling Harbour is beautiful by day and night. Every Saturday after 9pm there is a free fireworks show to enjoy. The Botanical Gardens in the city are worth a visit as well as the aquarium. Don’t bother with the Sydney Zoo, you will come across better ones on your travels up the coast.

 

PORT MACQUARIE 

These poorly koalas are nursed back to health by volunteers.

These poorly koalas are nursed back to health by Port Macquarie volunteers.

Our first stop after Sydney! A cute little town on the rise in popularity.

How long to spend here:

One night. It’s a pretty town, but with some much to see with limited time, it’s important to manage your days wisely.

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What to do:

I’ll admit, the only reason I wanted to stop here was for the Koala Hospital. It did not disappoint! Make sure you get here for 3pm for the free tour and talk! Click here to see more adorable pictures of koalas and read about the hard work these volunteers do.

 

COFFS HARBOUR

The Sky Walk in Coffs Harbour is a must-visit.

Coffs Harbour is mainly used as a stop-off to break up the long drive from Sydney to Byron Bay. But don’t write this town off. It’s got some gorgeous forest trails with koalas and a huge beach.

How long to spend here:

One full day and night. Plenty to do, but everything is really close to each other. One day filled with activities should do.

What to do:

The Sky Walk here is absolutely to die for. It holds a view overlooking the whole town and bay, and also has a nice Aboriginal walkway too, where you can learn the ancestral history of the place. The Butterfly House here is well worth a visit too.

There’s also a Dolphin Marine Centre where you can enjoy the dolphins performing. We didn’t go here though as I’ve always been uncomfortable with dolphins in tanks, but they assure visitors are dolphins are rescue mammals.

ARRAWARRA

Once in a lifetime sunrise at Arrawarra.

Once in a lifetime sunrise at Arrawarra.

Blink and you’ll miss it. No seriously, we drove by it three times trying to find it. Nestled away down a dirt road off the Pacific Highway is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

How long to spend here:

It’s worth dedicating three days to this awesome camp. And it will be three days to remember.

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What to do:

Mojo Surf Camp of course! Learn to surf during the day and chill out by the campfire at night, proper Aussie experience! To find out more about this place and see some embarrassing pictures of me on a surfboard, read on here.

BYRON BAY

The lighthouse walk is a must-do in Byron Bay.

The lighthouse walk in Byron Bay was one of my highlights of my trip.

I can officially now say, Byron Bay is my dream town to live in! Totally hippy, totally chilled, totally me.

How long to spend here:

We stayed for three days, the on the way back stayed for another three, I adored it here! I would say four days at least for this awesome place.

The Byron Bay beach is stunning.

The Byron Bay beach is stunning.

What to do:

I stayed in Nomads Hostel while here and couldn’t recommend it enough. It does get a little crazy on a weekend though, but follow the crowd and join the pub crawl, it’s fun!

The Lighthouse Walk in Byron was one of my highlights of my whole time in Oz so far. It’s a steep walk but worth it for the view. Sharks, dolphins and turtles can be seen from up here, and if you’re lucky a giant goanna! Whales breech the water every few minutes here, you’re bound to see one.

We also did a dolphin kayak here, pricey at $70 but totally worth it. To find out more about this awesome place, read on here.

CURRUMBIN

Great experience with the koalas in Currumbin.

We are now entering the Gold Coast, and have traveled over 800km!

How long to spend here:

One day. If you don’t have a night to spare, move on in the evening.

What to do:

The Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary is why most tourists come here. This is the first stop after New South Wales where you can hold a koala (it’s illegal in NSW). You can also hang out with the enormous red kangaroos here and get a seflie!

SURFERS PARADISE

Surfers Paradise has been nicknamed the Miami of Australia.

Surfers Paradise has been nicknamed the Miami of Australia.

Surprisingly, this place wasn’t really for me. It was very much like Miami in the U.S. and it is very commercialised. The beach are awesome to surf on and there’s some hardcore partying here too, if that’s what you’re after.

How long to spend here:

I stayed two nights and three days here. If you plan your trip right and arrive on a weekend, a longer stay might be worth it.

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What to do:

As I mentioned, nightlife is a pretty big deal here, with Cocktails and SinCity being two of the biggest clubs. There’s also beachfront markets to enjoy on a Friday night, filled with authentic Australian-made products and tasty treats. I got a hair braid here for the cheapest I’d seen along the whole east coast! Obviously, the surfing here is insane, so if you want to try your hand at the big waves, daily surf lessons can be bought on the beach.

Surfers Paradise is also where you can find all the theme parks and waterparks, as well as Ripleys Believe It Or Not and the Wax Museum.

One thing I regret not doing is a hot air balloon ride here! It’s extremely pricey but looks amazing! I’ve written about my Surfers Paradise trip in greater detail here.

BRISBANE

The Brisbane sign is a great tourist attraction.

The Brisbane sign is a great tourist attraction.

Now I may fiercely offended some Brizzie people here, and for that I’m sorry! But I’m trying to give an honest opinion here. Brisbane? Kinda boring. Beautiful city, but does not cater well to the backpacking crowd.

How long to spend here:

One day. If you must spend the night, try get accommodation outside of the city, as even hostel process are expensive, and as for drivers? Good luck getting parking, no hostel provides parking, let alone free parking.

Brisbane's charm can be seen at nighttime.

Brisbane’s charm can be seen at nighttime.

What to do:

Don’t get me wrong the city is gorgeous, less busy than Sydney and filled with eye-catching buildings. We, however didn’t find ourselves too occupied. The man-made beach in the middle of the city is worth a look (if it’s not packed with people). The Brisbane sign is a fun stop-off. Try climbing it to get the best picture!  Mount Coot-tha Lookout is worth a visit to see aerial views of the city and a must-do is a visit to Southbank. It’s a pretty walk through a lush green forest-like trail right in the middle of the city. Read more about my 24-hours in Brisbane here.

BEERWAH

The kangaroos at the Australia Zoo were definitely the highlight for me.

Australia Zoo is the biggest attraction in Beerwah, covering over 100 acres.

After an uneventful trip to the city, we packed up the car and sped on towards Beerwah.

How long to spend here:

lf you leave early in the morning, stay until late afternoon.

What to do here:

The one and only reason we came here? The Australia Zoo of course! This place is home to Steve Irwin and his legacy. The whole zoo is dedicated to him and crocodiles. Definitely worth a visit. But make sure to wear your walking shoes the place is huge!! And if you can, bring a packed lunch because holy hell is this place expensive. Also, pre-book your tickets with a travel agent otherwise you’ll end up paying way more at the gate.

After you’ve had your fill of the zoo for the day, keep an eye out for the Goass House Mountains on your drive, a pretty impressive sight!

NOOSA

Sunset at the Laguna Lookout was spectacular!

Sunset at the Laguna Lookout was spectacular!

By far one of my favourite places on the east coast. So much to do here, whether it’s luxury you want or a bit of rough and readiness.

How long to spend here:

In the general area of Noosa and the Sunshine Coast, I suggest up to five nights. Noosa town is so beautiful and once you see the beach you won’t want to leave! If you can do the national park, I recommend staying overnight here to get the full experience.

Fishing in the Great Sandy National Park.

Fishing in the Great Sandy National Park.

What to do here:

Spend the afternoon soaking in the cafe culture in Noosa. Get brunch in the high street the soak up some rays at the Main Beach. Take a walk out to the Spit and if you’ve the cash to spare, get a paragliding lesson. Watch the Pelicans come to roost here at sunset and bring your camera, you won’t be disappointed! Hike through the Noosa National Park and have a picnic at Laguna Lookout. If time allows, spend a night away from the crowds in the deserted Great Sandy National Park. To read more about camping here and Noosa town click here.

 

RAINBOW BEACH 

The colourful sand dunes are where Rainbow Beach gets its name from.

The colourful sand dunes are where Rainbow Beach gets its name from.

With a population of just 1100, the tiny town has probably one of the biggest backpacker foot-fall in Australia, being that it’s the gateway to Fraser Island.

How long to spend here:

One night either side of your Fraser Island trip is plenty. The first night use for some sightseeing and your last night use to have a fun night with your new Fraser friends!

What to do here:

If you have a 4×4, this place is a dream come true. Drivers are allowed on the sand, tide and weather dependent. The sand dunes here are spectacular and so colourful, hence the name Rainbow Beach. 

FRASER ISLAND

I made some amazing friends while camping on Fraser Island.

 

How long to stay here:

Fraser Island, will without a doubt be one of your biggest highlights of this trip. Give three full days on the island, with one night either side of the trip spent in Rainbow Beach. Five nights in total.

Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island is the most popular lake - you can probably see why.

Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island is the most popular lake – you can probably see why.

What to do here:

Book a Fraser Island tour in advance, do not wait until you get here as tours may well be booked up. There are so many different tours out there, so think hard about the experience you want, i.e.: outdoorsy and camping, hotel accommodation, self-drive, tour guide operated, small groups. I picked Dingo Tours, which I absolutely loved, you can read all about it here and decide for yourself.

SEVENTEEN SEVENTY

These baby kangaroos were so thankful and affectionate despite their sad reasons for ending up in the sanctuary.

Meeting the locals in 1770.

The Town of 1770 is named after James Cook’s landing in 1770. This town has a lot of history and is a cute little stop-off to break up the long drive from Rainbow Beach to Airlie Beach.

How long to spend here:

One night is enough, again a beautiful town but with bigger trips on the map, use your time wisely.

What to do here:

Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary should be top of everyone’s list who visits here! Run by the nicest Aussie couple, Denise and Garry, they take in orphaned joeys and hand-rare them until they are ready to go back into the wild. For those with a campervan or car, you can camp the night here.

CAPE HILLSBOROUGH

At sunrise this beach is scattered with kangaroos enjoying the cool sand.

At sunrise this beach is scattered with kangaroos enjoying the cool sand.

Nestled away off the beaten track in the national park of Cape Hillsbourough, is a beautiful beach known for its kangaroos at sunrise.

How long to spend here:

One night is plenty. There’s no phone reception for miles around here, and no shops or restaurants, so if you’re uneasy without civilization, 24-hours here will be enough!

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What to do here:

Aim to get to Cape Hillsborough mid-morning. There is a beautiful hike up through the national park that is a must-do. The scenery overlooking the water is breathtaking. The beach is so serene as well with great fishing. Stay in the Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park, complete with pool and resident kangaroos lying around! After a filling BBQ, get an early night and aim to be up before sunrise to see the salty kangaroos play on the beach. For a more detailed itinerary, read on here.

AIRLIE BEACH AND THE WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS

The Whitsunday Islands was my favourite part of the whole trip.

The Whitsunday Islands was my favourite part of the whole trip.

Despite the name, Airlie Beach is not much of a beach! Instead this beautiful seaside town is known as the getaway to the Whitsunday Islands.

How long to spend here:

By now the weather is hitting the high temperatures, you will have probably made some friends and you’re in no rush to end this unbelievable trip. Treat yourself and take six days in Airlie Beach. This place is picturesque, with amazing sunshine and great nightlife. Take two nights and three days to sail the Whitsundays, then enjoy a night or two either side to hang out Airlie Beach.

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What to do here:

Like Fraser Island, consider carefully the type of Whitsundays trip you want. There are some serious party boats out there, as well as more laid back, luxurious trips. Visit as many travel agents as you can to get the best deal. You can read all about my Whitsundays adventures here.

MAGNETIC ISLAND

Wild koalas and other Aussie wildlife can be spotted all over this island.

Wild koalas and other Aussie wildlife can be spotted all over this island.

Just three hours north of Airlie Beach lies Townsville. If I’m being honest, the town is as mundane as the name. The biggest backpacker attraction here lies just off the coast of Townsville – Maggie Island.

How long to spend here:

Don’t try squeeze it all into one day and one night. Take two nights here to explore this amazing and unique island. It’s full of history with an abundance of amazing Aussie wildlife you won’t want to leave!

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What to do here:

Take a hike through the Forts to see old WWII military bases and of course wild koalas! Visit the rock wallabies at Aracdia. Rent an open-top 4×4 and cruise the island. For more information on the best beaches and best budget accommodation, read on here.

TABLELANDS

Who cares about the cold water, be sure to take a swim when you're here.

The Millaa Millaa Waterfall.

The Tablelands regions is a mixture of rainforest, wetlands and savanna, with killer waterfalls and beautiful wildlife.

How long to spend here:

If you’re pushed for time, one afternoon is enough. However, you can book overnight tours here if you wish.

What to do here:

Visit the Milla Millaa Waterfall. This is where the famous Herbal essence ad was shot and also peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl music video. Every backpacker who has ever visited here must do a rite of passage and snap the “hair-flicking’ picture! research some tour guides here and let them take you on a bush walk around this beautiful rainforest.

MISSION BEACH

Palm trees on one side and the Great Barrier Reef on the other, this beach is pretty special.

Palm trees on one side and the Great Barrier Reef on the other, this beach is pretty special.

This teeny town has a population of just over 700. Backpackers flock here for the skydive made famous for its beautiful landing on a sandy beach among sunbathers.

How long to spend here:

One night is plenty. After the skydive adrenaline has subsided, people usually leave pretty quickly to catch the next bus to Cairns.

What to do here:

Other than the skydive there isn’t too much to do. But Mission Beach is situated on the Cassowary Coast, so keep an eye out for these endangered giant birds, a real treat if you see one!

CAIRNS

The Great Barrier Reef can be seen best from the coast of Cairns through crystal clear water.

The Great Barrier Reef can be seen best from the coast of Cairns through crystal clear water.

 Cairns comes pretty high up on my list of favourite places on the east coast; it has everything! Great nightlife, great weather, and most importantly, the Great Barrier Reef!

How long to spend here:

Give yourself five nights here. If you like to party and want to experience the nightlife, try organise your trip around a Saturday night.

The Cairns Lagoon is so beautiful and a great place for families.

The Cairns Lagoon is so beautiful and a great place for families.

What to do here:

Obviously you can’t come to Cairns and not experience the Great Barrier Reef! Book a scuba dive according to your level of experience. Cairns is also a sport for the adrenaline junkies and is well known for its bungee jumps. Hop on the party bus that takes you around town and go wild for the night. Just make sure not to book your dive for the morning after! The Cairns Lagoon is absolutely gorgeous but very, very packed. Take a stroll down here at sunrise and watch the colours change. It’s also beautiful at night-time, keep your neck craned for swooping bats the size of your arms!

DAINTREE

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The Daintree river has a fascinating history and is well worth a read during the bus journey north.

No we’re not finished yet! Please don’t let Cairns be your last stop on the east coast! Just two hours north of the city, you’ll find the town of Daintree. Here is where you’ll really start experiencing that tropical feel of Northern Australia.

How long to spend here:

Spend the full day exploring Daintree and the rainforest. The people here are so nice, true Aussies. My boyfriend fell in love with this place and didn’t want to leave.

We spotted four crocs on our cruise up the river.

We spotted four crocs on our cruise up the river.

What to do here:

As you will quickly realise as soon as you approach Daintree, there are croc warning signs everywhere. You are well and truly in croc territory now. You absolutely must take part in a croc-spotting tour. To see these magnificent creatures in their natural environment is amazing, and I’ll admit, slightly terrifying. Not being biased, but I genuinely think we picked the best tour to go on, read on here to find out more.

CAPE TRIBULATION 

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Well you’re this far north now, you might as well keep going. This region is a once-in-a-lifetime kinda deal. It’s where two WORLD HERITAGE sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.

How long to spend here:

Depending how long you like/dislike being away from civilization definitely contributes to your love of this place. We spent two full days and one night here and ticked just about everything off our list. For others, a day trip here might suit better, or perhaps a few extra nights.

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what to do here:

Cape Tribulation is a village spread out through the wet tropics region of the Daintree National Park. You will need to cross in the car ferry to enter and hold a valid national park tag and camping permit (all this will be looked after if you book a tour).

There are so many activities to do here I don’t know where to begin! Try fit them all in, like the Cape Tribulation beach, it’s like something from the show Lost, remote, beautiful and kind of overwhelming.

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Keelin Riley

Keelin is an Irish travel writer with a degree in journalism and a background in the Irish media. Based in Sydney, Australia she loves to blog about all things travel-related specialising in budget travel, ethical travel and off-the-beaten-track itineraries!

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