When you imagine a vacation in Queensland, a very clear picture comes to mind.
Theme parks, sunburns and beaches, apartments in Surfers Paradise and snakes, sharks and crocs. But there is another part of the state that is the road less travelled. Queensland’s mainland coast stretches for 6,973 km and, although much of it is unspoiled and inaccessible, its vast landscape is worth a visit.
Living here, the enormity of this state still amazes me, and it’s more than just a utopia of gorgeous beaches. There’s iconic Outback terrain, tropical coves, endless rainforests and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef. And while you can take a train from Brisbane to the far north, the best way to do it is by car, if you have time to soak it all up.
In order to save you days of driving aimlessly along the Bruce Highway (and dodging kangaroos along the way), there are a handful of non-negotiable beaches and towns you must visit on your northern adventure. .
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Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island)
Most travelers begin their trip in the southeast, and this is a good place to start. The climates are friendlier, the cities are more populated and it is the most affordable destination. But somewhere that is often missing in this corner of the country is beautiful Minjerribah, or North Stradbroke Island.
It’s a quick ferry from town, taking every 20 minutes on the speedy barge, but this trip across Moreton Bay transports you to another world – one where the roads are empty, the surf is friendly and you can experience all of Australia’s beautiful wildlife in one place.
If you want a real treat, head to Amity Point Township and follow the signs for the freshest shucked oysters straight from the ocean. Otherwise, head to the main township for an ice-cold beer on the water at the Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel.
K’gari (Fraser Island)
K’gari (Fraser Island) isn’t too far from the main road, and it’s a necessary stop for anyone traveling through the state. It’s listed as a World Heritage Site for good reason, and arriving on the island shows exactly why. It’s rugged, wild and seemingly endless.
Nature is still recovering from a bushfire that ravaged the island in 2020, but there are still many parts untouched. Explore the sandy cliff beaches by 4×4 or on horseback, and don’t forget to discover the famous pure white silica sand and crystal clear waters of the famous Lake Mckenzie (Boorangoora).
Agnes Water & Town of 1770
A resident of Agnes Water once told me, “People come here for the slow pace of life, but what they don’t realize is that there is no pace of life. And she is right. A moment at Agnes Water is a moment when you really stop.
The beaches are wonderful (and some of the last where it’s safe to swim without a wetsuit all year round), the locals are friendly and there are two good pubs – one at Agnes Water and one in the nearby town of 1770 (named after Captain Cook).
It’s worth stopping at Agnes for a night and staying in one of the campground’s safari tents where the sand of the main beach is on your doorstep, and waking up to climb around the 1770 promontory for one of the most spectacular sunrises you have ever seen.
For a taste of the Outback, without having to drive too far west, Rockhampton is the place to stop. In fact, on a quick trip north, this was almost the only place I stopped. Rocky, as it’s affectionately known, is the ‘beef capital of Australia’, which is why you’ll see so many bull statues around town.
What most people don’t know is that it’s also home to one of the most divine restaurants in the entire state, Dingles, which serves up the best meal you’ll likely have in a few days. Rocky also has beautiful old riverside buildings from its pre-flood history, and is a stone’s throw from Yeppoon and Great Keppel Island, one of many gateways to the Great Barrier Reef of Coral.
If you fancy a more authentic taste of the Outback, head west to Carnarvon Gorge. The walking trails are unlike anything you’ll have seen, and Aboriginal rock art chronicles how Australians lived for thousands of years before settlement.
While the Great Barrier Reef spans almost half the state, the Whitsunday region is truly heaven’s doorstep. Start in Airlie Beach, a 20-minute drive off the Bruce Highway, the town that has become synonymous with nightlife and daytime adventure.
There’s plenty to do in town, but what you really want to do is get out on the reef. The best way to do this is with Ocean Rafting; their tours combine a thrill-seeking experience like the Shotover Jet with underwater exploration.
And from there, you can visit Whitehaven Beach, home to a 7km stretch of the world’s whitest sand, and snorkel the surrounding reefs. When you return to Airlie Beach, be sure to stop by Fish D’vine for one of the best seafood experiences in the state (I wholeheartedly recommend the cobbread chowder).
Townsville is considered the capital of the Far North, and there’s a unique mix of countryside and city, adorned at every turn with NRL Cowboys badges. But despite the great restaurants, decent bars, and tropical resort on the water, the real beauty of Townsville is in the areas it surrounds.
Head slightly north to Crystal Creek for one of the area’s only safe swimming spots (stingers and crocs rule the ocean here), or hop on the ferry to beautiful Magnetic Island.
This island is best explored by car, so you can discover the hidden coves, mountain walks and hidden waterfalls at your own pace.
Halfway between Townsville and Cairns, you will arrive at Mission Beach. It’s humble, like Agnes Waters further south, but a necessary stop along this stretch of road.
There’s a cozy, small-town village feel to the area, and the palm and coconut fringed beaches are an ever-present reminder that you’re enjoying life in the tropics.
Nestled at the tip of the state, you will enter paradise. As we already discover during a road trip like this, Queensland is home to much more than red dirt, theme parks and snakes. But nature really saved the best until the end.
The Daintree Rainforest is an essential part of any itinerary, with its creeping vines, tall canopies and Sir David Attenborough calling it ‘the most extraordinary place on the planet’. Not only is it the most extraordinary, but it is the oldest tropical rainforest, at over 180 million years old.
Because it is such a special and sacred space, it is important to discover it well. There are many guided and native-owned tours that provide an understanding of how the rainforest has been explored for thousands of years, while giving the option to explore it at your own pace.
It may seem like you’ve come a long way, and by the time you reach Port Douglas you’re really in the far north of the country, but there’s still a nine-hour drive accessible via the main road.
These communities are beautiful, but sparse, so it’s best to tackle the cape with a purpose (and a well-stocked 4×4). From here you can take the coastal route home, hitting the stops you missed along the way, or head west and explore what the beautiful Queensland Outback really has to offer. I promise, it’s a completely different experience from the tropics.
Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Check safetravel.govt.nz and covid19.govt.nz before you travel to keep up to date with the latest travel advisories.