Fraser Island, The Whitsundays & The Great Barrier Reef - all destinations not to be missed! If there is one thing we know, it's how to backpack the mighty East Coast Australia... here is our advice!
How long will I need to travel the East Coast of Australia?
The East Coast of Australia is gigantic! To paint the picture – it would take approximately 30 hours of non stop driving to travel the coastline between Sydney and Cairns. Most of the popular tourist destinations along the way – Fraser Island, The Whitsundays and Cape Tribulation – require at least 2 days to experience at their best. 4 to 5 weeks will allow enough time to explore the coastline’s attractions comfortably , however (although we recommend more time) if you are willing to sacrifice certain destinations the East Coast can be ‘done’ in three weeks.
How do I get around?
One of the most popular ways to get around is by a public bus. Greyhound and Premier bus lines offer backpacker friendly passes that can be open dated and allow hop on, hop off travel. Both bus lines stop in all tourist destinations and provide at least one departure per day. You will find that the buses, although public, are safe and occupied mainly with travellers. The bus passes are a great option if you are running low on time.
For the more adventurous, Campervan Hire allows flexibility and mobile accommodation. Companies such as Spaceships, Jucy and Travellers Auto Barn offer one way rentals. Campervans tend to provide all cooking and camping facilities as well as linen, road maps and some even include DVD Players. In most tourist destinations along the East Coast it may be difficult to find free parking in town. Always keep your eyes open for ‘No Camping’ signs. However as most of the towns along the coast are relatively small (once you travel north from Brisbane), you will be able to find free camping areas if you drive 5 to 10 minutes out of town. Many hostels, such as Base Airlie Beach offer cheap camping and use of the facilities at the hostel.
A fully guided tour is also a quick, easy and cost effective way to travel the East Coast. There are many companies that will organise all of your accommodation, transport and tours for you. These are a great option if you are short on time or eager to meet like minded travellers!
What is the accommodation like?
Australia is an extremely backpacking friendly country and you will find hostel style accommodation located in all major tourist destinations along the East Coast. If flexibility is your thing, you can also buy a multi night Bed Hopper Pass that you can use at any Base hostels or Base mates - that way you save $$ and have the flexibility to book your accommodation along the east coast of Australia as you go.
Places to Stop on The East Coast of Australia
Melbourne is the cultural, artistic and musical capital of Australia - bustling with live music, laneway bars, graffiti, good coffee and outer city suburbs each with their own character.
We suggest staying in St Kilda (Melbourne's alternative beach side suburb). St Kilda is like no other place in Australia and just a 10 minute tram ride from Melbourne city. It is the alternative suburb of Melbourne and right by the beach - markets, cafes, bars and live music!
When in Melbourne we suggest heading to the Great Ocean Road - one of Australia's most famous stretches of beach. You can choose a Day Tour, Overnight Tour or a 3 Day / 2 Night Tour that will also take you to the Grampians National Park.
Also check out Eureka Skydeck - offering 360 degree views of Melbourne and surrounds, as well as the Aquarium, Queen Victoria Market, Royal Botanic Gardens and the inner city lane ways.
Head over to the north side of the city for a taste of Melbourne's bohemian counter culture. Brunswick, Fitzroy and Collingwood are home to loads of international and vegetarian eats, cool bars, live music and quirky shops (and locals). - Also a great place for op shopping and picking up some cheap, kooky clothes and accessories.
Melbourne to Sydney
Melbourne to Sydney is one of the East Coast's less travelled routes - which makes it a must do for those willing to explore the unexplored. South of Melbourne as you follow the coast towards Sydney, you will come across Phillip Island - home to some of Australia's best surf beaches and the popular Penguin Parade. Following the coast, make sure you visit Wilson's Promontory National Park - a 30km national park with hiking trails, wombats, kangaroos & vantage points looking out towards Tasmania.
As you continue north 90 Mile Beach is home to loads of uninhabited surf beaches and sleepy sea side towns. Lakes Entrance, Mallacoota & Bateman's Bay are also worth a pop in.
- Where to stay: Base St Kilda Melbourne
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There is more to Sydney than just the The Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. Darling Harbour is one of the best locations to stay. Darling Harbour is bustling with harbour side cafes, bars, shops, the IMAX Theatre, Aquarium & Madame Tussauds. A trip to the Sydney Eye Tower is also well worth a visit.
If the sun is shining - take a stroll along the Coogee to Bondi Beach walk, stopping at the stunning beaches along the way. If you are keen to learn how to surf - Surf Camp Australia offer overnight surf camps south of Sydney.
The Blue Mountains is also a must see! Just an hour from Sydney, the Blue Mountains National Park is very popular among backpackers and day tours depart daily.
When exploring the funky suburbs of Sydney we suggest Glebe, Surrey Hills and Manly Beach. Getting a ferry to Manly is cheap and a great way to explore the city from boat!
Sydney to Byron Bay
Some of Australia’s most amazing, hidden surf beaches can be found between Sydney and Byron Bay. If you have more time than the regular backpacker (most travellers tend to catch an overnight 15 hour bus direct from Sydney to Byron), stop by the chilled out suburbs of Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour.
Another popular little spot en route to Byron Bay is Mojo Surf’s Spot X Surf Camp! Situated beach side, and 3 hours south of Byron Bay, this two story beach house offers surf lessons, volleyball, parties and ultimate relaxation. The public buses stop at a small town called Woolgoolga where the Spot X crew can pick you up!
3. Byron Bay & Surfers Paradise
Byron Bay is the most easterly point in Australia: a surf haven for travellers, down to earth locals, organic food, live music, markets and an alternative lifestyle. If you missed out on Spot X and are short on time, book a half day surf lesson. Kayaking, Snorkelling, Scuba Diving and Water sports are also on offer, as well as the infamous day tour to Nimbin!
Nimbin was once a self sufficient hippie community hidden in the rainforest. Today it is a popular insight into the alternative lifestyle that embodies Byron and its surrounding areas. Jump on board a day tour and experience the waterfalls, the rainforest, the popular ‘Hemp Bar’ and the Marijuana Museum.
An hour north from Byron Bay you will stumble upon the Gold Coast. Surfer’s Paradise is a popular holiday destination for Australian locals: tall high rise buildings, a beautiful stretch of surf beach and buzzing bars and clubs every night of the week. Budds in Surfers provide a chilled out safe haven close to town. Be sure to visit one (or all) of the theme parks and the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (where you can hold an actual koala!)
Byron Bay is one of the most talked about surf side towns on the East Coast of Australia - it is chilled, mellow and surrounded by natural beauty. Byron Bay is also a great place to spend a half day or full day learning to surf. We also recommend a day tour to Nimbin - the famous hippie village located in the middle of the rainforest.
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Just 45 minutes north of the Gold Coast is Brisbane. If you are short on time to travel the East Coast, Brisbane is a great starting point. Brisbane is one of the cheapest airports in Queensland to fly into when travelling from other Australian major cities. Greyhound and Premier offer Brisbane to Cairns hop on / hop off passes and most Australia Campervan Hire companies have a depot in the city, offering one way rentals through to Cairns (or south to Sydney or Melbourne).
We recommend 2 to 3 days in Brisbane to explore all that the city has on offer. One of our favourite ways to see the city is by the free CityHopper ferry. The ferry departs every 30 minutes from 6:00am to midnight from various terminals along Brisbane River. Our tip? Take a walk down to Southbank and take the ferry through to Fortitude Valley - prepare for some amazing sights of the CBD.
Southbank is home to an inner city lagoon and there is always something gone - markets, free live music every Friday throughout summer and bars. Exploring Brisbane's outer suburbs is also a must. Fortitude Valley is a great place for a night out and you will find a little something for everyone here, from classy nightclubs to beer gardens and live music.
West End is where the locals eat and drink. You will find cheap international restaurants, cafes, funky clothes shops, markets, night clubs and loads of outdoor beer gardens. Brisbane has some great night and weekend markets which you can read about in 'Australia's Night Markets'.
One of the cheapest places to grab a selfie with a Koala is Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and a tour of the home of Queensland’s favourite beer XXXX is also a must. A walk to the top of Mt Cootha offers amazing views of Brisbane and surrounds and if you fancy a spot of snorkelling, kayaking, dolphin spotting, paddleboarding or sandboarding - then a day tour to nearby Moreton Island is a must.
- Where to stay: Nomads Brisbane. It's located within the Brisbane CBD and offer modern, secure and clean accommodation.
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Noosa is situated around 2 hours north of Brisbane, sitting upon Noosa River and nestled within the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Surf lessons are on offer, as well as Paragliding, Jet Skiing, Kayaking or a canoe trip through the Everglades. One of our favourite must do Noosa activities is taking the ferry along Noosa River and taking a walk through Noosa National Park (lookout for Koalas).
Australia Zoo is also a must do! Made famous by Steve Irwin, Australia Zoo is situated half way between Brisbane and Noosa and the Greyhound bus stops here. Hold a koala, spot the crocodiles and say hello to Bindy! Noosa is also one of our favourite places to begin your tour to Fraser Island...
- Where to stay: Nomads Noosa
6. Fraser Island
Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island! Ferries depart from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay (both located about 2 hours north of Noosa). Fraser Island must be explored by 4WD and at least 2 -3 days is needed on this tropical paradise! Fraser Island is home to some of the most amazing, white sandy lakes and rivers the world has ever seen - including Eli Creek and Lake McKenzie. Rich with aboriginal history, Fraser Island is also home to eucalyptus forests, walking trails, sand blows, hidden swimming spots and the infamous Maheno Shipwreck. Camping is by far the most popular of experiences, however is digging your own toilet is not your cup of tea - there are tours on offer that provide hostel or motel accommodation on the island.
Most backpackers will embark on a 3 day / 2 night 4WD Tag Along Safari of the island where cooking & camping facilities, maps, 4WD vehicle hire, ferry tickets (and basically everything you could possible need) included. These trips depart from both Noosa, Rainbow Beach & Hervey Bay.
Nomads Noosa offer 3 day / 2 night 4WD Adventures from Noosa with pre and post tour accommodation is needed and all food and camping equipment is provided.
7. Town of 1770
Discovered by Captain Cook in 1770, this little beach side town signifies the end of the Surf Coast and the arrival of the Great Barrier Reef. With a similar vibe to Byron Bay (and a lot smaller), 1770 is a popular spot for backpackers to chill out after 3 days of camping on Fraser Island. 1770 Southern Cross Backpackers is an awesome hostel to stay at in this town. If you missed out on the surf lesson – book one here. Scooteroo is one of the East Coast’s most talked about experiences. Grab a leather jacket, prepare the aviator sunglasses and jump onboard a Harley Davison scooter to watch the sun set over the headlands and spot for Kangaroos!
8. Airlie Beach – The Whitsundays
Every backpacker visiting Australia wants to take a photo of three Australian attractions – The Sydney Harbour Bridge, Fraser Island and the Whitsunday Islands! The Whitsunday Islands are accessible from Airlie Beach – a tiny beach side town with a crazy night life and a small town feel! 74 islands make up the Whitsundays – all of which reside upon the Great Barrier Reef. What is the best way to see them you ask? By Boat!
One day is definitely not enough! Most travellers tend to opt for a 2 day / 2 night Sailing Trip. Many Sailing Tours are on offer – from fast paced, Maxi Racing Yachts to Pirates of the Caribbean style party boats! Live onboard, snorkel, scuba dive, visit the most photographed beach in the world, Whitehaven Beach, and knock back a cold one as the sun sets over the ocean!
Most of the 2 day / 2 night tours arrive back into Airlie Beach at about midday. Ensure that you have accommodation booked for you returning night as most tours will organise dinner and a night out on the town for their newly appointed ‘crew.’
- Where to stay Base Airlie Beach Resort
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9. Magnetic Island
Base Magnetic Island offer the only beach front bar in Australia! The easiest way to get to this little island paradise is by booking an all inclusive ferry and accommodation package. Greyhound and Premier stop by the ferry terminal in Townsville, just four hours north of Airlie Beach. Two to three nights is recommended here depending on how much time you need to relax. Snorkel, Scuba Dive or explore the island by Moke (a mini car with no roof).
10. Mission Beach
Located an hour south of Cairns, Mission Beach is a rainforest, sea side retreat. Relax by the huge pool and pour yourself a glass of goon atScotty’s Beach House. Skydiving here is unbelievable and more popular than any other destination on the coast – after all, they do offer a beach landing! Tully River is also a popular spot for White Water Rafting. Take a day tour from Mission Beach (tours also depart from Cairns) – and experience 45, Grade 4 – 5 rapids in the middle of Tropical North Queensland’s Rainforest!
- Where to stay: Jackaroo Treehouse. You can stay here by purchasing a multi-night Bed Hopper Pass
Cairns - the adventure capital of Australia! Bungy Jumping in Cairns in a must do! Visit the hippy village of Kuranda which is situated in the tips of the rainforest. The most scenic way to get to Kuranda is by the scenic train. The train stops at a viewing platform overlooking the glorious Barron Falls, before continuing on to Kuranda. Once there, visit the markets and the local wildlife park. Catch the Cable Car from Kuranda back to the Skyrail Station - the views are absolutely stunning!
The Atherton Tablelands, just one hour south of Cairns, are situated 600km above sea level and home to breath taking waterfalls and natural water lakes. Swim underneath the infamous Millaa Millaa Falls - don't forget to imitate Peter Andre's 'Mysterious Girl,' - which was filmed at this very location.
The Great Barrier Reef is the greatest attraction to Cairns. Take a scenic flight over the reef or alternatively, take a boat tour! Tours range from day tours, to overnight tours, to 5 Day Learn to Scuba Dive Courses. All tours offer the option to experience a scuba dive with a guide.
Cairns itself is a beautiful city and oozes a tropical atmosphere - visit the wildlife dome, the crocodile park or enjoy the sun by the lagoon.
12. Cape Tribulation
A visit to Cairns is not complete without an adventure to Cape Tribulation – Say goodbye to sealed road and venture to the middle of nowhere! Cape Tribulation is located two hours north of Cairns and is accessible by a short ferry ride over the Daintree River. An overnight tour is recommended. Most tours will offer a crocodile spotting cruise on Mary River (highest concentration of crocs in Australia), a tree top walk to the tip of the rainforest canopy, rainforest walks and an abundance of photo opportunities! Overnight accommodation is available in dorms or private rooms.