With loads to see and do on The East Coast of Queensland, deciding what’s best is akin to choosing what to watch on Netflix – you’re spoilt for choice!
I lived in Australia for two years and during that time, my friends who’d already done The East Coast had plenty of recommendations. I took note of places that repeatedly came up so I knew what couldn’t be missed.
Separating The Wheat From The Chaff
The Whitsunday Islands had the most recommendations, while Byron Bay & Cairns tied for second place.
Cape Tribulation wasn’t spoken of often, but boy oh boy, it was the most enthusiastic mention when I did hear of it.
Kayaking in Noosa also had a special recommendation from two of my closest friends, they assured me it was one of the best things they did.
Planning An Australia East Coast Road Trip
The Whitsunday Islands and Cape Tribulation would be the base of my road trip itinerary. They were not too far apart, so in less than a week I could see both and get to visit Mission Beach in between. Here is a list of everything I booked beforehand:
Gold Coast to Melbourne = $89
Melbourne to Cairns = $209
2 weeks car hire = $316
Cape Tribulation Tour = $175
2D 1N Whitsundays Tour = $225
Cairns Hostel (2 nights) = $44
Total = $1058 each
Two of us were going to spend just over a fortnight driving from Cape Tribulation to Byron Bay. The flight from Gold Coast to Melbourne was a deal I caught on the weekly Jetstar flight sale, which is Every Friday & sometimes more frequently.
Follow airlines TigerAir, Jetstar and pages like ‘IKnowThePilot’ and ‘Secret Flying’ on Facebook, that way you can catch sales as soon as they happen!
We planned to use the Wikicamp app to camp for free the whole journey. We used a tent from K Mart which cost next to nothing, though in hindsight we should have shelled out for something less claustrophobic! Sometimes when we were in need of a bed, hot shower or laundry, I would check my Agoda App for any hotel deals nearby.
Cheap Car Rental Australia (One Way)
When booking our 14-night rental car I tried holidaypirates.com, I noticed their search engine had more attractive results than Australian sites. Definitely worth a look. I missed the best deal by being indecisive, so be ready to snap up a good one when you see it.
The next best deal I found was direct with Ace Rentals using a Facebook promo code they had at the time. We had to pay a one-way fee and also opted for full insurance, so it could have been even cheaper. And of course, with more people in the car, we could have split the cost further.
Download a trivia game app for the long drives to help you stay alert, and look out for $1 coffees at 7-elevens and 80 cent ones at Coles Express.
Book Cheap Trips Online
At Cape Tribulation, you can explore the world’s oldest rainforest, The Daintree. It is home to the increasingly rare Cassowary, which is the world’s most dangerous bird according to the Guinness Book of Records. We managed to spot one as we were leaving Cape Tribulation- just in the nick of time!
The $175 tour I chose included transport from Cairns, a crocodile river cruise and one-night accommodation at Ferntree Lodge. The drivers are tour guides too, both knowledgeable and funny. There are multiple stops along the way, including at a waterfall and for a guided walk in the rainforest. I couldn’t believe the value of the trip, it was worth much more than the price tag.
Ferntree Lodge has a restaurant and 2 pools. You can arrange activities at the front desk and also pay for wifi. Heads up; there is no reception in Cape Tribulation, so you are off the grid during your stay. The Lodge is within walking distance of the glorious Myall Beach, and a local swimming hole behind Masons Creek Store.
During our overnight stay, we booked Jungle Surfing for $105 each which seemed like a lot to spend, but it was a blast. We got lucky and were the only 2 people to book the time we chose, so had a longer and more in-depth zip line tour of the Daintree.
I used website bookme.com to find the Matador Whitsundays tour. There are loads of trips to choose from, some with early bird deals and last minute discounts. If you are pushed for time, there are one day Whitsunday tours too – I just fancied the novelty of spending the night on a boat. The Matador struck me as the best tour, for 3 reasons:
- The reviews mentioned how well they feed you, all inclusively. We both have big appetites.
- One of the first tours to get onto the famous Whitehaven Beach, so you can catch it at it’s most Instagram-worthy!
- You stay overnight with less than 20 people on a boat with BYO booze. They have a cooler there and you can also buy mixers & water on board.
Our early bird ticket was a great deal at only $225 each. After the trip, I felt that if I had paid full price it would still have been worth it.
Let me paint a picture…
Imagine this: You’re feeling all warm and fuzzy, having spent the day surrounded by tropical fish & colorful coral. All tuckered out from hours of swimming and sailing the bright blue waters of the Whitsundays. You’ve just watched an epic sunset after an exciting day of snorkeling The Great Barrier Reef. You’re sipping a cold beer with some new friends, and your belly is full of delicious spag bol. You’re lying back, doing a bit of stargazing when you hear some splashing noises. That sound is wild dolphins and a school of fish doing rounds of the boat. That is my Matador experience, and I thought it was perfect.
The next morning we woke up to the sun rising on the Whitsunday Islands. The boat was racing to get to one of the world’s top 5 beaches first, we arrived at Whitehaven before it became cluttered with people. The white sand is nearly pure Silica, this stuff can supposedly exfoliate 5 years from your skin (something I wish I’d known before I left the beach! C’est la vie).
Can’t stress enough about how much suncream you need to bring! The sun is so powerful on the boat and the ozone layer is thinner over Australia. Don’t let sunburn ruin an amazing experience.
We returned to Airlie Beach that afternoon with a deal at Boaties Bar for food & drinks. The next day we would continue our road trip to Byron Bay. The plan was fairly laid back from then on. I wanted to see; 1770, Rainbow Beach, go kayaking in Noosa, visit Byron Bay & Nimbin, and do a surf lesson somewhere along the way!
Cairns to Byron Bay Road Trip
Day 1: Arrived in Cairns & took a $25 airport taxi to our hostel. The hostels do provide shuttles for $10 (sometimes free) so it’s worth contacting them directly.
Day 2: 7 am pick up from the Cairns Backpackers hostel for Daintree tour. Spent the night at Ferntree Lodge.
Day 3: Dropped off at 7 pm at Cairns City Backpackers.
Day 4: Spent the morning at the seafront in Cairns where there is a free pool! Collected car from Ace Rentals in the afternoon and located our first free campsite at Fred Drew Park on Palmerston Hwy, Belvedere.
Day 5: Discovered Etty Bay, one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been to!
There is a resident cassowary that wanders around the beach. We missed him this time, but hopefully, if you visit you’ll spot him.
Stopped by Mission Beach on our way to free campsite, at Vincent Bushy Parker Park in Rollingstone. You can swim in the creek here.
Day 6: Drove to Airlie Beach and stayed at Magnums (with free parking!), which is essentially a backpacker village, it’s quite impressive. There is a free pool at Airlie Beach Lagoon – so much fun!
Day 7: Stored our valuables at Magnums for only $5 and headed to the Marina for 8 am, ready for our overnight Matador Whitsundays Tour.
Day 8: Returned to Airlie Beach around 3 pm and stayed at X Base Hostel. Spent the evening at Boaties next door enjoying the food and drink offers we received from Matador.
Day 9: Visited Clairview Beach. There are lots of mangroves and the area is also home to the endangered Dugong!
Camped at Royal Hotel free camp near Rockhampton. This place has electricity you can use along with the usual freebies (BBQ’s, toilets, water).
Day 10: Drove to 1770, Agnes Water in the morning and then Mon Repos Beach, Bundaberg in the afternoon. There is a turtle sanctuary here where you can watch hatchlings at night – however, we weren’t keen to stay in Bundaberg overnight and there was a storm brewing!
We carried on down to a tiny town (30 minutes from Rainbow Beach) called Tin Can Bay, to stay in a cheap hotel. Every morning at Tin Can Bay you can feed ‘wild’ dolphins for $10. Or pay $5 for the honor of watching someone else feed them.
Day 11: It was raining hard. The plan was to go to Rainbow Beach for a surf lesson and/or do a walking tour of Carlo Sand Blow. It’s also a good place to do a skydive!
Instead, we spent a rainy day & night in Brisbane City, completing visa paperwork at the Thai Embassy (for a 6-month tourist visa to Thailand…that’s another story).
Day 12: Tested out the free ferries in Brisbane before driving to Belli Creek campsite only 30 mins from Noosa. This campground is popular and small, so arrive before it gets dark to find your spot.
Day 13: Noosa heads boat hire has $70 a day double kayaks. You can also pay hourly if you’d prefer! If you kayaked for less time you could also check out Bli Bli Aqua Park for some inflatable obstacle course fun (tickets are a lot cheaper on Groupon than direct).
We stayed at the same campsite as the night before – we were pretty tired from all the paddling fun.
Day 14: Found a hotel in Southport on the Gold Coast. The hotel set us back $80 including parking, but we needed to sleep in a real bed and do some laundry pronto! The Gold Coast is very nice, with deep blue water and great beaches- though parking is hard to come by.
Day 15: Drove to Byron Bay! Instantly loved this place. There are no free places to camp in the area because it is so popular, but there are a few reasonable priced campsites instead. One by the beach and another (which we stayed at) close to the high street, called Glenn Villa Resort. This campsite has a pool, electricity, hot showers, laundry & BBQ’s. We ended up staying here for 3 nights!
Day 16: Nimbin Day: I wouldn’t go out of your way to see this place, or put a whole day aside for it. Though I’ll give it some credit, at only 1hr 15mins from Byron, the drive is probably one of the most scenic drives I’ve done, albeit extremely pot-holey. Nimbin is a hippie town made for a specific kind of person. If it’s not your cup of tea, maybe you’ll enjoy the views on the journey instead.
Day 17: We Found an excellent deal for a surf lesson with North Burleigh Surf Club, I cut out the middleman (Groupon) and paid directly, getting the price discounted to only $45 each to surf for a few hours at Fingal Heads on the Gold Coast. This beach is quite secluded and was perfect for beginner surfing. The package included wetsuit & surfboard hire, photos of the day and a guarantee that you would stand up on the board- which we both did!
Day 18: Drove the 1hr 15mins up to Gold Coast from Byron Bay. After spending a couple of hours at Palm Beach we returned the car and caught our flight home.
Thank you for reading
I hope this article can be helpful to you if you are planning your own East Coast or Queensland adventure. Layer the plan, stretch it, shrink it, fill in those days I didn’t, flip the trip backward or, add in Fraser, Hamilton or Magnetic island! So many possibilities.
The Coast of Queensland is something else, and it has all the offerings for a holiday of a lifetime!