The Sunshine State is opening up to NSW residents (well, except Sydney-siders for now). Queensland has all the allure of the French Riviera mixed with the Caribbean and Florida somewhere between. Tourists from Tasmania and the ACT have been welcomed for a while. Now that it has opened to NSW residents outside Greater Sydney, we look at the best places each type of traveller should get to in Queensland.
Avoid the crowds – and the higher prices of Queensland’s hotspots – by taking a slight detour off the beaten track. It’s not hard in Queensland – there’s gold just around the corner from the state’s most popular destinations.
Noosa is the best example. Avoid it over Christmas – if you haven’t booked in yet, you won’t get a bed anywhere in town. But take a 45-minute drive west through its pretty hinterland to the Mary Valley. Barely anyone knows, but it’s Queensland’s food bowl and home to heritage towns with historic country pubs to dine at (aim for the Railway Hotel in Imbil or the Kenilworth Hotel). Take a hike through the adjoining Amamoor State Forest, or look for platypus on a dawn kayak with Ride On Mary or take a half-day horse ride with Mary Valley Adventure Trails. It’s also where you’ll find friendly locals running B&Bs who’ll treat you like family, such as Amamoor Lodge. There’s even the Dingo Creek winery if you’re feeling thirsty.
Or check out Noosa’s best-kept secret – its sleepy north shore, and Great Beach Drive, the beach highway connecting the Sunshine Coast and Gympie region with Fraser Island, to the north. Take a car ferry across the Noosa River, then hightail it to Rainbow Beach (there is bitumen road access via Gympie if you don’t have a 4WD) along the sand. Stop along the way at deserted swimming and surfing spots (see if you can spot regular surf visitor Chris Hemsworth) such as Double Island Point, with its historic lighthouse. If you’re in a caravan or camping, head to Rainbow Beach Holiday Park, if not, Pippies Beachhouse has everything from double rooms to family units. Order fresh-caught seafood on the deck overlooking the beach at Rainbow Beach Surf Lifesaving Club. There is heaps to do – take a tour of the sand drifts that surround town, visit nearby Fraser Island, learn to surf or go diving with Rainbow Beach Tours.
Take a turn west from the beach at the Gold Coast to its largely unheralded hinterland (it’s at least five degrees cooler there over summer). Stay at some of Australia’s oldest eco-lodges (you can camp there, too) – at O’Reilly’s and newly re-opened (after fires in 2019) Binna Burra Lodge. Take walks through World-Heritage-listed Lamington National Park, home to some of the oldest rainforest left on Earth, and over 500 waterfalls, with over 200 kilometres of hiking trails. If you feel like a tipple – bet you never knew the Gold Coast Hinterland has a wine region? (the wine’s amazing at Witches Falls Winery, though the prettiest winery is Canungra Valley Vineyards.
There are ways you can travel around Queensland with a group of friends where you need not share the place with anyone else. Why not rent out your own island?
Pumpkin Island – part of the Keppel Islands (off Yeppoon) – is Queensland’s best-kept secret. Hire the entire island (it’s just six hectares), which sleeps up to 34 for $80 per head per night (the island costs $2730 per night). There are seven self-contained units powered by the wind and sun – spend your days swimming, snorkelling and sunbaking – before a BBQ on your deck at sunset.
Or rent a private island in the Whitsundays – for up to eight people for $1300 (weekdays) or $1500 (weeknights) – that’s less than $200 per person per night. Camp Island is just north of Airlie Beach – you’ll be transferred by boat from Bowen. You can fish, snorkel, kayak, swim or hike the island. Gourmet hampers are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or if you’d like your own island for practically nothing – take a water taxi 10 minutes from Mission Beach (two hours south of Cairns) and stay at one of eight camp sites on Dunk Island – you’ll have your own private beach (there was an iconic resort on the island destroyed by cyclone). And the cost? $6.15.
Or if you can’t hire your own island, hire your own sailboat. Explore the Whitsundays on your own private sailing yacht complete with skipper with up to six of your friends. Airlie Beach Day Sailing shows off the Whitsundays’ hidden gems, all for only $880 (bring your own food and alcohol and tell the skipper what sort of day you’d like to have).
When you’re back in Airlie Beach, take a drive to Northerlies Beach Bar & Grill – 10 kilometres north of town. Have a beer and lunch on a huge deck facing north towards the Whitsundays – there’s some quirky accommodation on-site (nine boat-shaped bungalows) if you’d like to stay the night (or several). There are hiking trails close by if you manage to pry yourself away from the bar (parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/conway-circuit).
Want to see the best regions of Queensland with no-one around? Head north! In summer most domestic travellers avoid Tropical North Queensland (Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef) and leave it to international tourists. But guess what – there aren’t any this year.
Summer is when TNQ receives most of its rainfall. But downfalls are largely contained in afternoon storms. And all that rain delivers The Green Season – when the landscape explodes with colour, native wildlife is easiest to spot and waterfalls go crazy. Check out the waterfall circuit west of Cairns (tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au/listing/itinerary/waterfall-circuit/), home to some of the country’s most famous falls, such as Millaa Millaa Falls, and Millstream Falls (which has over 100 individual falls and is Australia’s widest waterfall).
Stay nearby in the Atherton Tablelands (it’s at a higher elevation, so it’s five degrees cooler). There are quirky treehouses to escape into the wilderness here, including Mt Quincan Crater Retreat, where you’ll look over a misty valley from on top of an extinct volcanic crater. The area’s a food bowl, so there’s great food all over. Try Skybury Cafe outside Mareeba for the best curry in Queensland, flavoured by papaya, (watch out for the kookaburras). And spend quality time imbibing the best local foods distilled in award-winning liqueurs at Mt Uncle Distillery.
Also consider the road between Townsville and Cairns, which plies its way through the Cassowary Coast. It’s quiet even in high season (winter). Call in at trendy beach address, Mission Beach, to check out its iconic art galleries (missionarts.com.au, helenwiltshiregallery.com.au) and eat right on the beach with the locals at Buko – then stay the night (Castaways Resort & Spa captures that lost in North Queensland sort of vibe).
If you’re a solo traveller looking to make friends – the Northern Escape Collection is your ticket to communal sundowners. Orpheus Island Lodge and Mt Mulligan Lodge aren’t cheap (rooms start at $1700 per night, though this includes meals, alcohol and activities) but there are no friendlier places to holiday solo in Australia. Take a helicopter from Townsville to Orpheus Island – there are only 26 guests on the island, and you’ll spend your days taking run-abouts to even more remote beaches, fishing the Great Barrier Reef, and eating overlooking the ocean – before mandatory sunset drinks on the beach with your new friends. Mt Mulligan Lodge is located 150 kilometres west of Cairns beneath an 18-kilometre-long mountain range that’s been home to indigenous Australians for 38,000 years.
It’s impossible to beat the Gold Coast for how much it offers families – if your kids get bored here, they’ll get bored everywhere. You probably know there are a lot of good beaches here – but you mightn’t know there’s actually 57 kilometres of them, and that because of a long history with caravanning and camping, some of the most prized pieces of real estate are occupied by tourist parks. So you can stay on the beach really cheap. There are nine tourist parks here –in the trendiest parts of the coast, from Burleigh Heads to Kirra to Tallebudgera Creek (goldcoasttouristparks.com.au).
Or maybe you’d prefer to stay at a Big 4 Holiday Park home to the highest water park within a tourist park in Australia. There’s 317 metres of waterslides here, and you’re very close to the region’s theme parks here.
And nowhere in Australia does theme parks quite like the Gold Coast. There’s a World here for any kind of kid. All located within 25 kilometres of each other, check out Sea World, Dreamworld, Movie World, Paradise Country and Wet’n’Wild.
You can stay right next door to Sea World at Sea World Resort then walk a few metres to the park. Though the Kids’ Club at Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa is the most comprehensive of its kind anywhere in the state – for kids of all ages, every day of the year. If you need a break from the kids, this is the place to stay.
Teach the kids to surf, there are more surf schools here per capita than anywhere else in Australia (getwetsurf.com, currumbinalleysurfschool.com.au). Check out free bird shows, feed kangaroos and watch vets in action at one of Australia’s oldest conservation parks, Currumbin Sanctuary, currumbinsanctuary.com.au (a stone’s throw from one of the region’s best beaches).
Head into the hinterland for a different sort of Gold Coast family experience. Thunderbird Park is on the border of Tamborine National Park, only 40 kilometres from Surfers Paradise. Camp there or stay in lodges or bush cabins; it’s got Australia’s largest, highest and fastest zip-line tour – you’ll travel at 70 kilometres per hour. Or fossick in the world’s largest thunder-egg mine.