The ultimate Brisbane to Cairns road trip itinerary, straight up the Bruce Highway along Queensland’s tropical Pacific coast and taking in the best places to stop including Fraser Island, Bundaberg, Rockhampton and Townsville.
Okay, so you’ve crossed the Brisbane River to South Bank to get a dose of culture, including a visit to the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), learned that crime doesn’t pay on a visit to the historic Boggo Road Gaol, toured the iconic XXXX Brewery and said hello to a few marsupials at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
You’ve eaten splendidly at top chef Matt Moran’s Aria Brisbane, Gerard’s Bistro, Jellyfish and The Wolffe. And had a great night’s sleep at Mantra South Bank, splashed out at Treasury Hotel & Casino or played it smart at Brisbane Holiday Village or Travelodge Hotel Garden City Brisbane. Now it’s time to hit the road north to Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland
Day 1: Brisbane to Fraser Island
6hr 37min | 352km
Drive along the Sunshine Coast past Noosa Heads and the Great Sandy National Park where a detour to the Cooloola Recreation Area could have you enjoying Noosa River in a canoe or on a wilderness cruise, or discovering a freshwater lake in the sand dunes.
Keep moving through the gold-rush town of Gympie on the Mary River, “the town that saved Queensland” from bankruptcy when gold was discovered here in 1867. Learn all about it at the Gympie Gold Mining & Historical Museum. And if you’re a country music fan, time your visit to coincide with the Gympie Muster in August.
At Maryborough, take Highway 57 to Hervey Bay for a bit of whale watching from July to October. Or pop down to River Heads to catch the ferry to World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, at 184,000ha, the largest sand island in the world. White sandy beaches rise to 200m-high sand dunes, home to rainforest and more than 100 freshwater lakes. Wildlife includes dugongs, sea turtles and dingoes. The island’s Seventy-five Mile Beach is both a 4WD highway (only 4WDs are allowed on Fraser) and an airstrip. Go swimming (be wary during stinger season, October-May), fishing, boating or hiking.
Day 2: Fraser Island to Bundaberg
4hr 12min | 182km
Get back on the Bruce and drive to Childers where you take Highway 3 through sugarcane country to Bundaberg, home of Australia’s iconic Bundy rum. Check out its grand colonial buildings, enjoy a cruise on the Burnett River or visit the Bundy Distillery for research purposes. Take a day trip to snorkel the coral reefs of Lady Elliot, home of the manta ray, have a swim at Bargara Beach or check out the sea turtles at Mon Repos Turtle Centre just out of town.
Day 3: Bundaberg to Rockhampton
3hr 20min | 288km
The journey continues west on Highway 3 to join the Bruce at Gin Gin, in “Wild Scotsman Country” – named in reference to the capture of bushranger James Alpin McPherson here in March 1866. Gin Gin now holds a Wild Scotsman Festival every March. If fishing is your thing, you’re pretty much guaranteed of hooking a barramundi at Lake Monduran 20 minutes north of Gin Gin.
At the day’s halfway mark in Gladstone, one of Australia’s largest commodity ports, The Outlook Café is a pit stop with a view at Auckland Point Lookout.
Back on the road, it’s about 90 minutes to Rockhampton. Train spotters will love the Archer Park Rail Museum while fans of large animal statues will have a field day checking out Rocky’s six big bulls. Mount Etna Caves National Park has some of Australia’s most cavernous limestone formations, dry rainforest and more than 100,000 bent-wing bats. Mount Archer National Park is Darumbal country and includes glossy black cockatoos among its inhabitants. The Edge Bar & Restaurant and Ribs and Rumps both have river views, while the Giddy Coat Café & Bar is popular with locals.
Day 4: Rockhampton to Mackay
3hr 41min | 336km
North of Rocky, take a short tour of the Capricorn Caves and meet some more tiny bats. Back on the road, the coastal community of Clairview is the halfway mark. Its waters a sanctuary for the endangered dugong, this is a popular fishing and mud-crabbing spot.
It’s all sugar cane and fruit up this way and just south of Mackay is the Sarina Sugar Shed, Australia’s only miniature sugar mill and distillery. They distil and bottle their own Sugar Shed Rum. Nearby Hay Point has one of the largest coal loading jetties in the world – 3.8km long.
Day 5: Mackay to Townsville
4hr 19min | 389km
At Cape Hillsborough National Park, 50km north of Mackay, the rainforest literally does meet the reef. Get here early enough and you’ll see eastern grey kangaroos and wallabies hanging out on the beach. The park also has about 25 species of butterfly.
At Proserpine, take the turnoff to Airlie Beach, the jumping-off point for every water-based activity you can imagine – from sailing to eco-tours to snorkeling magical coral reefs. From Airlie you can make day trips to the Whitsunday Islands.
Back on the highway, next stop the laid-back tropical town of Bowen, where time seems to have stood still since the 1950s. Check out the Big Mango or take a ferry ride to nearby Stone Island.
Back on the highway, next stop the laid-back tropical town of Bowen, where time seems to have stood still since the 1950s. Check out the Big Mango or take a ferry ride to nearby Stone Island. It’s another 2.5 hours to Townsville. This is a military town, home to Lavarack Barracks, one of the Australian Army’s largest facilities. So it’s appropriate to check out the North Queensland Army Museum to understand this region’s strategic role in WWII. Or hop on a ferry to nearby Magnetic Island, which boasts 23 secluded beaches and bays. About half the island is national park with 24km of good walking trails and abundant wildlife including sea turtles and the occasional koala.
Day 6: Townsville to Cairns
4hr 16min | 347km
This last stretch is known as the Great Green Way, with some 12 national parks and 25 tropical islands in the region. Standout attractions include the Tyto Wetlands near Ingham, home of the eastern grass owl. Check out the historical Chinese temple and colonial architecture in Innisfail. Get your thrill-seeker on whitewater rafting down the Tully River. The sugar town of Tully is the wettest in Australia. Be sure to check out the Golden Gumboot. The Golden Gumboot Festival and Gumboot Games are held here every June. Relax on the golden sands of Mission Beach, surrounded by World Heritage rainforest, which offers easy access to the Great Barrier Reef. Reef Express can have you there in 45 minutes.
There is much to see and do in and around Cairns. The World Heritage Daintree Rainforest is a two hour drive north. Take a cruise and spot a crocodile. Beautiful Mossman Gorge is 90 minutes away, just past Port Douglas, and great for swimming and bushwalks. Take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway above the treetops across the Barron Gorge to the mountain village of Kuranda with its vibrant arts community. Return to Cairns on the historic Scenic Railway. Experience authentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park or check out local produce, especially coffee, fruit and seafood, at Rusty’s Markets from Friday to Sunday.
Grab a coffee and snack at Sing Sing Espresso or get a bit of art and music on the side at Caffiend. Dining options – it’s got to be seafood – include The Raw Prawn on the esplanade; Salt House; Tha Fish; and Bayleaf Balinese.