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 East Coast... here is our advice!
How long will I need to travel the East Coast?
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. Five 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 streaming 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 Campervans 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 Backpackers Airlie Beach and Cool Bananas in 1770 also 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!
Melbourne is the cultural, artistic and musical capital of Australia - bustling with live music, laneways, grafitti, 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 laneways.
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 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 Promonotory National Park - a 30km national park with hiking trails, wombats, kangaroos & vantague 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 & Batemans Bay are also worth a pop in.
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
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!
Byron Bay is the most easterly point in Australia: a surf side 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.
Byron Bay & Surfers Paradise
An hour north from Bryon 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. Aquarius Backpackers 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.
Just 45 minutes north of the Gold Coast is Brisbane. Base Backpackers have 3 hostels to choose from: Base Brisbane Central, Base Embassy and Base Uptown. All are located within the Brisbane CBD and offer modern, secure and clean accommodatdion. Down Under Bar will provide a night of unforgettable entertainment. If you missed the Gold Coast, be sure to visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Take a tour of the home of Queensland’s favourite beer XXXX or travel by ferry to Moreton Island (great for sand boarding, snorkelling and dolphin spotting).
Brisbane's outer suburbs are oozing with culture, music and alternative scenes. Fortitude Valleys is a must do when heading out for a night on the town. You will find quite a mix of up market night clubs (we suggest Cloud 9 to check out their amazing light / waterfall feature), beer gardens, live music venues and backpacker bars.
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.
Southbank is also a must - with an outdoor lagoon overlooking the city, night markets and garden areas. Take a ferry from Southbank to Fortitude Valley - it's the best way to check out the sunny capital.
Australia Zoo is also a must do! Made famous by Steve Irwin, Australia Zoo is situated half way between Brisbane and Noosa. Hold a koala, spot the crocodiles and say hello to Bindy! Noosa is situated around 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.
Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island! Ferries depart from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay (both located about 3 – 5 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 - inlcuding 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 facilites, 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.
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. Cool Bananas is an awesome little hostel that also offer cheap camping for those travelling with campervans. 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!
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.’ Base Backpackers Airlie Beach Resort offer bungalow style accommodation centred around a tropical swimming pool. Next door, Down Under Bar & Grill offer affordable meals and a nightly buzz.
Base Backpackers 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).
Be sure to stay tuned for Base Magnetic Island's monthly Full Moon Party!
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 at Scotty’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!
Cairns - the adventure capital of Australia! Bungy Jump 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.
Base Backpackers recommend two hostels in the centre of Cairns: Nomads Cairns– a large, tropical resort style hostel with its very own lagoon pool, volleyball courts and nightly entertainment. The hostel is located a little out of town and offers a free shuttle bus.
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.
Travelling the East Coast
Ok so organising your East Coast Adventure can be quite scary! There are so many destinations and different tours to choose from! Here is our recommendation: If you have more than 4 - 5 weeks to travel the entire coast between Cairns and Sydney, then you will have a lot of flexibility for tour dates. We suggeset buying an open dated GREYHOUND TRAVEL & STAY PACKAGE which includes a 3 month hop on / hop off Greyhound Pass & a flexible 10 Night Base Jumping Pass. That way you can book your buses and accommodation as you travel - and save $100!
If you have 3 - 4 weeks travel (or less) then we suggest at least booking in the dates of your Whitsunday and Fraser Island Tours. They book out quickly! If you still like a bit of flexibility - epsecially around Byron Bay, Surfers Paradise, Brisbane and Noosa - this allows you to travel freely until you reach Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay!
Written by Katie Tobias