When traveling to the land down under, visitors to Australia tend to fly into Sydney and then pick an island or two on the Great Barrier Reef to explore. Fly in, fly out — usually. Not a bad way to see the two biggest draws of the country-continent if you are time-starved, but that approach misses so many experiences along the way. So, if you have the time, drive the Great Barrier Reef. It stretches alongside the state of Queensland, so start in the south and drive north, along the one road that takes you — if you were inclined to keep driving — right around Australia: The A1.
I had the chance to do this epic road trip under the excuse of research for a travel guide book, and drove the 752 miles described here on my own, in a rental car, stopping frequently and being sidetracked by many, well, sidetracks along the way. To save you the dead-ends and not-so-worthwhile stops, here are the highlights of the drive along the Great Barrier Reef.
You can do this trip in a week, but you will miss a lot, so I would suggest at least two or three weeks. The more time, the better, as this is a stretch full of surprises that need to be explored.
Bundaberg To Seventeen Seventy
I started in Bundaberg, simply because it is the town lining up roughly with the southernmost point of the Barrier Reef, and it has an airport. Famous for being the country’s largest rum producer, Bundaberg has a few sights to see, but, depending on when your flight comes in, I would jump in the car and drive 1.5 hours up the road to the town named after the date when Captain Cook landed there: Seventeen Seventy.
A quirky little seaside settlement, Seventeen Seventy is a setting-off point for reef explorations, neighboring town Agnes Water is famous for its surf, and it is a relaxed spot, perfect for getting over jet lag and adjusting to a slower pace of life for a couple of days.
Pro Tip: Take a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island for some snorkeling.
The Way To Rockhampton
When you are ready, head north toward Rockhampton, which is just under three hours from Seventeen Seventy. If you are a keen scuba diver, turn off the A1 and stop in Gladstone for a transfer either by boat or seaplane to Heron Island, one of the best dive spots along the Great Barrier Reef. Spend a few days to see manta rays, turtles, giant groupers, and a myriad of underwater life. Gladstone itself is a good lunchtime stop, but otherwise a mostly industrial city.
Heading north, you will cross the Tropic of Capricorn at one of the few places where it touches land and the sign that you have reached the Capricorn Coast, which has Rockhampton as its capital. Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia, and you will spot giant bulls everywhere and can be assured of a decent steak for dinner. A nice, wealthy city with grand houses and heritage buildings, this is also a spot from which you can head inland to learn more about the local gold rush in places including Mount Morgan.
Pro Tip: Spend some time at the Dreamtime Cultural Centre, Australia’s largest Aboriginal cultural center, to learn about its original inhabitants’ history.
Eungella National Park
This nearly five-hour trip will take you north and inland to hopefully catch sight of an elusive platypus. Eungella National Park is a lovely spot to stay a couple of nights to hike in the forest and try and spot one of the fairy-tale animals. But you might need to stay the night; try first at dusk and then get up early again the next morning as these critters keep unsociable hours.
The next leg is a two-hour drive back to the coast, to Airlie Beach.
Pro Tip: Stop for lunch in the Mackay Marina, which is full of lovely restaurants and a chubby little lighthouse.
Airlie Beach And The Whitsundays
Airlie Beach is the capital of the Whitsundays, a group of 74 picture-perfect islands. The larger ones are connected by regular passenger ferries from Airlie Beach. The town is bustling, young, fun, and relaxed, while on the islands you can find everything from extreme luxury stays at resorts including qualia on Hamilton island to the expansive Daydream Island. There are also hotel and apartment options in small towns with attractions on Hamilton Island, so the choice is yours. But a stay for a night or three is a must.
Pro Tip: Splash out on an Island Hopper ferry pass, which allows you to hop on and off at Daydream and Hamilton Island and enjoy use of select hotel pools.
Townsville And Magnetic Island
When you are ready to move on, drive the three hours north to Townsville. This lovely city has a beach, a superb aquarium, plenty of history, shopping, and many dining options. There is a great hill offering magnificent views across the region. And Townsville has access to another island: the quirkily named Magnetic Island. This little island offers all kinds of water sports, koalas, and restaurants, and is easily traversed on a mini-moke — a recreational convertible — a bicycle, or the local bus.
Pro Tip: MOUA, the Museum of Underwater Art is the newest attraction in the area, with installations both underwater and along the coast.
Roughly another three hours north of Townsville, you will come to Mission Beach. This is not just one beach but several, all connected by small hotels, shops, and restaurants. The reason to stop off here, not necessarily overnight, are the cassowaries. These large, flightless birds with distinctive blue heads, are like mini-dinosaurs. Yes, they’re pre-historic. They live in the dense forest, but just driving along, you’ll often spot them crossing the roads in front of you.
Pro Tip: Along the main road, that is, A1, you will spot the town of Tully, with its enormous Gumboot, one of Australia’s Big Things that make road trips fun.
Cairns is not only an interesting city to stay in for a while, but, more importantly, it is a departure point for a multitude of day trips and activities. From taking the Skyrail to the artist village of Kuranda and the vintage train back to drives through the Atherton Tableland, from Cairns, you can go as far as the amazing Undara Lava Tubes, and Fitzroy Island is practically on Cairns’ doorstep. In short, you’ll want to stay awhile to explore the surroundings. While Cairns itself does not have a city beach, the good thing about a road trip is that you can drive for just 15 minutes and reach beaches including beautiful Palm Cove.
Pro Tip: While Cairns is a great setting-off point, it is very backpacker and party focused. So, for a quieter and equally convenient stop, stay in Palm Cove.
Port Douglas And Four Mile Beach
A little further north from Cairns, just past Palm Cove, you will find Port Douglas. This drive is the most beautiful stretch of the entire road trip, so take your time and stop off frequently to enjoy the views along the way. Port Douglas is a lovely, quiet little town with a bustling marina taking day-trippers out to a myriad of reef islands and for water sports. Sights such as the cute St Mary’s by the Sea chapel and the nearby Mossman Gorge, plus the stunning beach, will keep you busy for a couple of days if you can stay.
Pro Tip: When visiting the nearby Mossman Gorge, book the Dreamtime Legend Walk to hear indigenous stories and participate in a traditional smoking ceremony.
Editor’s Note: Aboriginal smoking ceremonies involve burning native plants for spiritual purposes, not pipe or tobacco smoking.
You’ve made it to the place which, for me, was the absolute highlight of the entire trip: the 180-million-year-old rainforest, the only one left over from the time when Earth still had only a single continent. Crossing the crocodile-infested Daintree River by small boat ferry, you enter a wonderland filled with 20 percent of Australia’s bird species, 30 percent of its frog species, and 65 percent of its bat and butterfly species.
Yes, the stunning beaches are sadly off-limits because gigantic saltwater crocodiles thrive here as well. There are many self-guided and organized walks you can follow through the forest. You will be stunned by the sheer magnitude of it. You may even see a rare tree kangaroo. You can drive up to a certain point north, after which the road gets rough and rental cars are no longer allowed because of the sheer distance to the nearest civilization. In the drivable areas, there are plenty of little cafes along the way that make welcome rest stops.
Pro Tip: Pop into the Daintree Discovery Centre and book yourself a walk with an indigenous guide during which you’ll learn about the wonders of the forest and the medical and nutritional uses of its plants, and have help with spotting some of the animals.