One of the best ways to explore Australia is on a road trip, and since it’s a big country, you can split the regions up into manageable holidays. Most visitors would probably tend to visit the east coast, since it’s home to the biggest cities – like Sydney and Melbourne – and most of the country’s attractions.
From surfing beaches to wildlife parks and spectacular wineries, one of the most popular road trips in Australia is along the Pacific Coast Touring Route which stretches 3,140 kilometres all the way from Sydney to Cairns.
Following this itinerary, you will experience city life as you cruise along the coast, dropping in on famous beaches from Byron Bay to Surfers Paradise, world-class cellars of Hunter Valley, and plenty of wildlife reserves that are home to indigenous critters.
DAY 1: SYDNEY TO NEWCASTLE
From Sydney, head north along the Pacific Motorway for 1.5 hours before stretching your legs on the Bouddi Coastal Walk near Gosford which weaves through Bouddi National Park from Putty Beach to MacMasters Beach. There are plenty of sea views, wildflowers and photo ops along this 8.5km (4 hours) one-way walk.
A further 30 minutes north is Newcastle, Australia’s second-oldest city – once home to the largest coal shipping harbour in the world – that’s affectionately known as “Newie”. The Bathers Way is a scenic two hour (5km) walk from Nobbys Headland lighthouse to the coastal wilderness of Glenrock Reserve and the early coal workings at Burwood Beach.
Few cities in the world have a city centre surrounded by eight beaches; Newcastle is one of them. This means plenty of swimming beaches, ranging from the historic Mereweather Ocean Baths which was opened in 1935, to Nobbys Beach, and Bogey Hole (carved into ocean rocks by convicts in 1820).
Newcastle’s most famous beach, Merewether, features both white sand and spectacular waves and the Surfest festival, Australia’s largest surf festival, is held here every February.
DAY 2: NEWCASTLE TO POKOLBIN
Bound by a harbour and glorious beaches, Newcastle is also the gateway to the Hunter Valley which is Australia’s oldest wine-growing region. You can spend an afternoon dropping in on some of the 120 wineries – from the picturesque Audrey Wilkinson to concert-hosting Bimbadgen – that dot the region which is renowned for its Semillon and Shiraz.
In addition to wineries (and cheesemakers), you can also explore the region’s diverse calendar of festivals and events. One of the best ways to soak in the views of the area is from a hot air balloon ride.
DAY 3: POKOLBIN TO PORT STEPHENS
A further 100km drive east takes you to the sandy beaches of Port Stephens, Australia’s dolphin-watching capital where you can swim with the playful residents (the waters are home to around 150 bottlenose dolphins) in their natural habitat on a morning cruise into Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park.
There are 26 sandy beaches here, some sheltered in bays that are perfect for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking. The towering Stockton Beach sand dunes are great for quad-biking and horseriding.
DAY 4: PORT STEPHENS TO COFFS HARBOUR
You can cycle along the 8km-long Nelson Bay to Fingal Bay cycleway to explore Nelson Bay’s busy marina and along the coast. Hop back into the car for a 246km drive north along the Pacific Highway to Port Macquarie where you can visit the Koala Hospital, the first of its kind in the world. It’s the world’s first hospital dedicated solely to the care and preservation of koalas. You can join their daily Walk and Talk tours at 3pm.
DAY 5: COFFS HARBOUR TO BYRON BAY
Just off the coast from Coffs Harbour is Solitary Islands Marine Park, the third largest protected marine area in New South Wales. Spanning 71,000 hectares, it is home to an incredibly diverse range of marine life, from coral and colourful fish to turtles and dolphins, making it an underwater wonderland for divers and snorkellers alike. The marine park includes the tidal waters of estuaries, beaches and headlands within its boundaries and is protected by a special zoning scheme to protect fish habitat.
A three-hour drive north takes you to the bustling coastal town of Ballina, which means a ‘place of many oysters’ from the Aboriginal word ‘Bullenah’. The town is known for its seafood, both for fishing opportunities in the ocean and estuary, as well as for its Big Prawn – “The World’s Largest Artificial Prawn” that weighs almost 40 tons. Slated for demolition in 2009, the oversized crustacean statue was saved by the community of West Ballina in 2013.
During the winter months (June to October) this coastline offers great vantage points for whale-watching when these graceful mammals move in family pods, often breaching and slapping their flippers and flukes. All the headlands along the coast, apart from Cape Byron, afford humpback whale sightings early in the season, as well as on their return journey in September and October.
Drive a further 36km north, and you’ll reach the bohemian beach paradise of Byron Bay.
DAY 7: BYRON BAY TO GOLD COAST
Take a sunrise stroll along the Cape Byron Walking Track and see the first rays of light turn the Byron Bay lighthouse pink. Then hit the road for the 90 minute drive north, over the border, to Queensland and the glitzy Gold Coast.
Spend the day exploring the Gold Coast – renowned for its white sand beaches that stretch across 57kms of coastline. Choose from the sheltered waters at Coolangatta and Currumbin beaches or the popular surfing breaks at Main Beach or Burleigh Heads. Surfing is not the only activity at Surfers Paradise – you can also try a paddleboard lesson.
Turn away from the beach and explore the Gold Coast hinterland, where you can explore the three-day Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk, which passes an ancient volcano and goes through World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforest, or follow a cycling trail through the wineries and boutique breweries of Mount Tamborine.
DAY 8: GOLD COAST TO BRISBANE
The next stop is Queensland’s relaxed yet sophisticated capital city, Brisbane, an easy 100km drive north. Combine art and outdoor adventure here, where creative spaces, music and hip new restaurants meet pretty riverside gardens and man-made beaches.
Climb Brisbane’s Story Bridge for panoramic views across the city, north to the Glasshouse Mountains and south to the World Heritage-listed Gold Coast hinterland. In a two-hour excursion you will ascend 80m above sea level as you learn about the bridge’s history and construction. Keep the adrenaline going with an optional 30m abseil back down the anchor pier.
DAY 9: BRISBANE TO FRASER ISLAND
Hit the highway for a 300km drive north to River Heads, just south of Hervey Bay, where you can catch a 50-minute ferry across to World-Heritage listed Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. The protected waters between the island and Hervey Bay is regarded as Australia’s whale watching capital. Here you can hop on an afternoon whale watching cruise where your chances to spot them are higher between July and November when they make their annual migration.
Fraser Island’s vibrant blue Lake McKenzie is perched above a powdery white sand dune where you can have a cooling swim. Containing only rainwater (and no groundwater), this ‘perched’ lake is not fed by streams and doesn’t flow into the ocean. The pure, white silica sand and organic matter at the base of the lake prevents the water from draining away, and acts as a filter to give the water its signature blue and green colour – the water is so pure but ironically supports very little life.
DAY 10: FRASER ISLAND TO BUNDABERG
Before hopping on the ferry back to the mainland, explore more of Fraser Island by hiking 3km along the Balarrgan Circuit which starts at the Kingfisher Bay Resort and winds through eucalyptus woodland to the picturesque White Cliffs lookout.
A 1.5-hour drive north through vibrant sugarcane fields leads you to Bundaberg, made famous by its sugar industry. The town is home to three local brands – Bundaberg Rum, Bundaberg Brewed Drinks and Bundaberg Sugar. Drop in on a tour around the famous Bundaberg Rum Distillery, which dates back to 1888, where you can blend your own rum to take home.
Head east to Mon Repos Beach which is home to the largest loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific, and there are evening tours that take you to protected parts of the beach to see turtles lay their eggs (November to February), or turtle hatchlings as they make their way to the sea (January to March).
DAY 11: BUNDABERG TO ROCKHAMPTON
The lush Cania Gorge National Park is 225kms west of Bundaberg, where you can tackle the 2.5-hour Dripping Rock walking track through eucalypt woodland and dry rainforest before reaching the base of Dripping Rock and the Overhang, where water has eroded the base of a sandstone cliff to create an interesting formation.
Rockhampton, founded in 1853, is home to heritage post offices, historic streetscapes, majestic cathedrals and quaint homes. It also happens to be Australia’s beef capital where you can sample some of the country’s best steak. Six bull statues are dotted around town representing the main breeds of the area, and there’s a weekly rodeo at the back of the pub at the Great Western Hotel.
DAY 12: ROCKHAMPTON TO MACKAY
A 30-minute drive north on the Bruce Highway takes you to the Capricorn Caves, an extensive network of ancient limestone caves. Squeeze and crawl your way through the cave’s tunnels and shafts on the way to the surface ridge for panoramic views.
A 30-minute drive east is the charming tropical village of Yeppoon, where you can walk along the town’s picturesque esplanade with its backdrop of offshore islands. Then head 350km north to the laid-back township of Mackay.
The historic town of Mackay – once a sugar boom town – is filled with 1920s Art Deco buildings and public artworks, and is situated in the middle of the Queensland coast which encompasses secluded islands off the coast, golden sand beaches, and sub-tropical rainforests.
You can catch sight of wallabies and kangaroos as they congregate in numbers to fossick through the sand at sunrise on the beach at Cape Hillsborough National Park. Look out for shy platypus at the Finch Hatton Gorge in Eungella National Park, a fairytale land of waterfalls, rock pools and lush foliage. Scuba dive in the rainforest at Oliver’s Pool near Finch Hatton Gorge to try and come face to face with a platypus.
Mackay is a great place to haul in some fresh catch – whether it is ocean, lake or river, the region sits at the meeting point for southern and northern species, so you can catch an incredible variety of fish.
DAY 13: MACKAY TO TOWNSVILLE
The route north towards Townsville takes you past lush mango orchards, sugarcane fields and the “big mango” in Bowen. You can spend an afternoon at Reef HQ, the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, which also features a turtle hospital.
Townsville is Northern Queensland’s less-visited, pedestrian-friendly city with a picturesque esplanade and hosts grand, refurbished 19th-century Federation-style buildings with loads of landmarks. It is also a major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland outback.
Townsville is close to a number of spectacular islands, like Hinchinbrook Island – Australia’s largest island national park – with Thorsborne Trail, a 32km hike through spectacular wilderness.
Magnetic Island, a 20-minute ferry ride away, is another draw, with its 23 beaches and excellent dive sites; one of which is the shipwreck of the SS Yongala, one of the best wreck dives in Australia and one of the top five in the world. The warm, shallow waters around the island are also ideal for snorkelling, especially on one of the Snorkel Trails at Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay.
DAY 14: TOWNSVILLE TO CAIRNS
Heading further north along the highway to Ingam, you can take a short detour to see Wallaman Falls, Australia’s highest single drop waterfall. Continue further north for a short pitstop at Paronella Park – built by Spanish migrant José Paronella in 1935, the park is home to a romantic castle, complete with waterfall, set within 5 hectares of tropical gardens beside Mena Creek.
The final leg of the journey takes you to Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, and Tropical North Queensland. No trip to Cairns is complete without booking an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system that’s made up of 3,000 coral reefs and 600 continental islands.
The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest is two hours north, where you can stay overnight in one of its wilderness lodges. For a bit of arts and crafts, you can head to the mountain village of Kuranda, tucked within the tropical rainforest where local markets are open daily.
In Australia, laws and driving regulations differ from state to state. In most Australian states and territories (except the Northern Territory), you are allowed to drive – and rent a car – with an overseas licence as long as it is current.