Let it all hang out in Queensland: Australia's holiday haven offers beaches, reefs, jungles, uptempo locals and a laid-back tropical pace of life.
Queensland’s most famous ‘landscape’ is actually underwater: the astonishing 2000km-long Great Barrier Reef. Also offshore are hundreds of islands, harbouring giant dunes and surreal forests growing in the sand. Back on the mainland, bewitching national parks protect lush rainforests, sparkling lakes and wildlife that ranges from cute and cuddly (koalas) to downright fearsome (crocs). Skyscrapers define the landscape in Surfers Paradise and Brisbane: everywhere else you’ll find laid-back beach towns and sugar-cane fields rattling under the Queensland sun.
Outdoor Queensland is truly ‘great’. Take the Great Barrier Reef for starters: slip on some goggles and ogle one of the most amazing underwater landscapes on earth. There’s also white-water river rafting and easygoing kayaking along the coast. Bushwalking here is first-rate: propel yourself along a multiday ‘Great Walk’, or take a shorter hike through a rainforest gorge or up a mountainside. Sail across the azure Whitsunday waters, or tackle a 4WD adventure along Fraser Island’s ‘beach highway’. There’s also great surfing, skydiving, mountain biking, fishing and hang-gliding to be had.
On Your Plate & In Your Glass
With a hip caffeine scene, rambling farmers markets and fabulous riverside restaurants, Brisbane has reinvented itself as a foodie destination. The city’s alter ego shows up at sunset, when clubs, pubs and small city bars light up the night. Elsewhere in the state – including foodie haunts such as Noosa, Cairns and Port Douglas – you’ll find culinary rewards great and small, from fish and chips to sizzling steaks. Wash it down with Queensland’s ubiquitous XXXX beer, or hunt down some fine wine from the little-known Granite Belt wine region.
Wrapped around river bends, boom town Brisbane is a glamorous patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with a distinct cultural flavour: bohemian West End; party-central Fortitude Valley; affluent Paddington; exclusive New Farm…explore and soak up the vibes. The Gold Coast should also be high on your list: nightclubs and surf clubs in equal measure. Other hubs include Cairns (gateway for the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef), Noosa (on the Sunshine Coast) and Airlie Beach (to access the Whitsundays). Urban essentials abound: cafes, bars, restaurants, galleries, shops and more.
The Sunshine Coast – the 100 golden kilometres stretching from the tip of Bribie Island to the Cooloola Coast – is aglow with perfect beaches, coveted surf and a laid-back, sun-kissed populace who will quickly tell you how lucky they are. Resort towns dot the coast, each with its own appeal and vibe, from upmarket, cosmopolitan Noosa to newly hip, evolving Caloundra.
Further inland is the lush, cool hinterland. It’s here that you’ll find the ethereal Glass House Mountains, looming over the land- and seascapes, and the iconic Australia Zoo. Further north, the Blackall Range offers a change of scenery with thick forests, lush pastures and quaint villages dotted with artisan food shops, cafes and crafty boutiques.
The Fraser Coast runs the gamut from coastal beauty, beachfront national parks and tiny seaside villages to agricultural farms and sugar-cane fields surrounding old-fashioned country towns.
North of the much vaunted Sunshine Coast is this little pocket of quintessential Queensland which takes in World Heritage–listed Fraser Island and some mellow coastal communities, such as Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach, the agricultural centre of Bundaberg, and numerous old-fashioned country towns never too far from the ocean.
Fraser is the world’s largest sand island, home to ancient rainforests and luminous lakes, moody ocean swells and a beach shipwreck – few leave here unimpressed. Across the waters of the Great Sandy Strait, Hervey Bay appeals to retirees and young travellers alike, and from July to October, migrating humpback whales stream into the bay. Further south, tiny Rainbow Beach is a backpacker hot spot with decent surfing.
Bundaberg, the largest city in the region, is a friendly, sunny urban centre overlooking the sea of cane fields that fuels its eponymous rum, a fiery spirit guaranteed to scramble a few brain cells.
Many travellers to Australia, especially those with a sailing pedigree, head straight for the Whitsunday Islands and barely leave. This white-fringed archipelago, a stunning feature of the Coral Sea coast, can be easily seen from shore. Opal-jade waters and pure-white beaches fringe the forested isles; around them, tropical fish swarm through the world’s largest coral garden in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The gateway to the islands, Airlie Beach, is a backpacker hub with a parade of tanned faces zinging between boats, beaches and nightclubs. This is as close to the islands as some budget travellers will get.
South of Airlie, Mackay is a typical coastal Queensland town with palm-lined streets framed by a jumble of art-deco buildings. It’s a handy base for trips to Eungella National Park – a lush hinterland oasis where platypuses cavort in the wild. North of Airlie Beach is cute little Bowen, a low-key alternative for backpackers working through their holiday.
Tropical, touristy Cairns is an unmissable stop on any east coast traveller’s itinerary. Experienced divers and first-time toe-dippers swarm to the steamy city for its easy access to the Great Barrier Reef, while those more interested in submerging themselves in boozy good times are well served by a barrage of bars and clubs. The Atherton Tablelands – home to cooler climes, volcanic craters, jungly waterfalls and gourmet food producers – are a short, scenic drive inland.
The winding road north of Cairns hugs ludicrously scenic sections of shoreline en route to ritzy Port Douglas; keep going and you’ll meet the mighty Daintree River’s vehicular ferry. From here, profuse, protected rainforest stretches up to Cape Tribulation and beyond, tumbling on to long swaths of white-sand beaches; don’t be so awestruck that you forget to keep an eye out for.
Spread out between the tourist darlings of Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, this lesser-known, rainforested stretch of quiet, palm-edged beaches is where giant endangered cassowary graze for seeds, and koalas nap in gum trees on turquoise encircled islands. Oft-overlooked Townsville is the urban centre and offers pleasant, wide, modern streets, a landscaped seaside promenade, gracious 19th-century architecture, and a host of cultural venues and sporting events. It’s also the jumping-off point for Magnetic Island, a great budget alternative to the Whitsundays and with far more wildlife – hand-feed wild wallabies, spot an incredible range of bird life on fantastic bushwalking trails, and look for koalas.
North of Townsville, beautiful Mission Beach is a laid-back village that ironically attracts thrill seekers by the busload, all eager to skydive over the reef and on to white-sand beaches, or go on an adrenalin-pumping white-water rafting trip along the Tully River.
The stretch of coastline that straddles the tropic of Capricorn is one of the quietest and most lovely lengths of the east coast. While local families flock to the main beaches during school holidays, the scene is uncrowded for most of the year, and even in high season you needn’t travel far to find a deserted beach.
Agnes Water and Town of 1770 are twin towns with a glowing reputation, and many travelers head from here for some of the world’s best snorkelling and diving on the Southern Reef Islands. Opportunities for wildlife spotting – from turtle hatchlings to passing whales – are plentiful.
Great Keppel National Park is another tourism commercial in the making (actually it’s appeared in a fair few already!). The stunning powdery white sand and turquoise waters of the Capricorn Coast fit the holiday-brochure image perfectly. Unspoiled and windswept national parks such as Deepwater and Byfield can be found along the entire coastline, and are almost never busy.
Inland, you’ll find bustling Rockhampton – Capricornia’s economic hub and the capital of cattle country, with the steakhouses, rodeos and gigantic hats to prove it.
If you’ve done the coast, why stop there? Queensland has some of the most accessible, big-sky, genuine outback Australian country you can experience.
Beyond the Great Dividing Range the sky opens up over tough country, both relentless and beautiful. Travellers come for the exotic and intimate Australian experience, their restlessness tamed by the sheer size of the place, its luminous colours and its silence.
This a region of rodeos and bush races, country pubs and characters, caravanning nomads, backpackers behind bars and burnt orange sunsets. In the Dry season, endless blue skies hover over stony deserts, matched only by the brilliant velvety clarity of the Milky Way at night.
Queensland’s Outback is an eye-wateringly vast region, but it’s surprisingly accessible, criss-crossed by sealed roads and peppered with towns small and slightly smaller.
It’s a long way between drinks out here, but it’s well worth the drive.
Surfers Paradise The brash, buzzy heart of the Gold Coast is a beacon for sun-worshippers and party kids (and the sand and surf are heavenly).
Rainbow Beach This aptly named surf spot dazzles with its ancient, multicoloured sand cliffs and dunes.
Whitehaven Beach The jewel of the Whitsundays, with powdery white sand and gin-clear waters.
Four Mile Beach Reach for your camera: backed by palms, this long, photogenic Port Douglas beach is one for the holiday album.
Cape Tribulation The rainforest sweeps down to smooch the reef at these empty stretches of sand.
Fraser Island The world’s largest sand island is basically one big beach.
The Spit A long, wild stretch of pristine Gold Coast sand and dunes, beyond the high-rises and the crowds.
Yeppoon A long sweep of Queensland sand where locals and Rockhampton folk come to cool off.
Rose Bay One of little Bowen’s best bays. Sit on the sand and eat a mango.
North Stradbroke Island Take a quick trip from Brisbane for whale watching, surfing, long beach walks and swimming in forest-ringed lakes.
The Whitsundays Book in at one of the archipelago’s top resorts, or board a sailing boat and explore as many of these pristine islands as you can.
Lady Musgrave Island Ringed by reef, this secluded island is a great place to play castaway.
Fraser Island Rev-up your 4WD: the world’s largest sand island has giant sand dunes, freshwater lakes and rampant wildlife.
Lady Elliot Island Ringed by reef and reachable by light aircraft, Lady Elliot has the best snorkelling in the southern Great Barrier Reef.
Fitzroy Island One of a handful of lovely islands off Cairns, with enticing beaches, rich coral and a hilly interior. Prime day-trip terrain.
Lizard Island Pitch a tent or check into the plush resort on this far-north island.
Frankland Islands These five uninhabited, coral-fringed isles are custom-made for adventurers and beach bums alike.
Dunk Island Recent cyclones didn’t spare gorgeous Dunk and its butterflies, bushwalks and bird life, but take a day trip or camp overnight and see how the rebuild is shaping up.
St Helena Island Engaging convict history a short hop from Brisbane in Moreton Bay.
Kuku-Yalanji Dreamtime Walks Guided walks through Queensland’s Mossman Gorge with knowledgeable Indigenous guides.
Ingan Tours Aboriginal-operated rainforest tours from Mission Beach.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park Interactive tours and vibrant performances in Cairns by local Tjapukai people.
Bama Way Experience Far North Queensland on Indigenous-run tours: sacred sites, bush tucker and boomerang throwing.
Food & Drink
Jan Powers Farmers Market Next to the Brisbane Powerhouse, this fabulous farmers market is the place for brilliant local food.
Noosa Food & Wine Salubrious, surfside Noosa serves up four gluttonous days of feasting and workshops in May.
Granite Belt Wineries Surprise! Queensland has vineyards! Tour the low-key cellar doors in this cool mountainous region and sample some top drops.
Atherton Tablelands The volcanic soil of the Tablelands yields exotic fruits, strong coffee, surprising wines and lush dairy products.
Bundaberg Rum Distillery Visit the home of Queensland’s iconic (and eye-smarting) firewater, squeezed from local sugar cane.
Burleigh Brewing Company Little Burleigh Heads has been brewing up a storm of late: Burleigh Brewing Company and newcomer Black Hops Brewing are doing good things.
Sailing the Whitsundays Set sail in this magical Queensland archipelago.
Cairns to Kuranda Sail above the rainforest on a cable car to Kuranda, then take the scenic old-fashioned railway back.
Seaplane to Lizard Island Take a seaplane to this remote Queensland island, splashing down on Watson’s Bay.
Atherton Tablelands Travel the inland route between Cairns and Mission Beach (via Mareeba) and scan the scenic Atherton Tablelands.
Cairns to Port Douglas One of Australia’s most spectacular drives cuddles the coastline to provide watercolour vistas of the Coral Sea.
Noosa National Park Koalas, dolphins and seasonal whales are easy to spot at this highly accessible pocket of green.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary Swoon over a one-on-one with Australia’s best-loved soft, furry icon.
Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary A low-key alternative to Australia Zoo.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures Come face-to-toothy-snout with a prehistoric predator near Port Douglas.
Kuranda Koala Gardens Birds, bats, butterflies and – of course – koalas – await at Kuranda, near Cairns.
Fraser Island The wild dingoes here are the purest-bred in Australia.
Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas See some koalas, kangaroos, crocs, lorikeets and cassowaries in natural habitats.
Cassowaries in Mission Beach The road signs are here for a reason: cassowaries are out there!
Gold Coast Theme Parks Water parks, aquatic shows and plenty of heart-starting roller coasters.
Underwater World – Sea Life Mooloolaba The largest oceanarium in the southern hemisphere is a great place to see sharks, stingrays, dazzling fish and more.
Australia Zoo Spend a full day at massive Australia Zoo, Queensland’s wildlife temple to all creatures great and small.
Daydream Island Resort & Spa Unlike many Whitsundays resorts, this one welcomes families with open arms, offering heaps of activities for the kids.
South Bank Parklands Splash away on a safe, sandy beach right in the centre of Brisbane.
Gallery of Modern Art Brisbane’s GOMA has a dedicated kids’ activity area that’s a sure-fire hit on a hot afternoon.