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Road Trip Australia: Sydney to Cairns

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Australia is my favorite country for a road trip! I've driven the east coast twice, both times starting from Sydney and making my way up to the northern most point past Cairns. Like the states, Australia is vast, and there's no better way to see it than to drive through it. The east coast is nothing like the outback, and you will find little towns in between the major stops. So if you have a lot of time and can go off schedule there's definitely options for a few unplanned pit-stops. If you are planning a road trip on the east coast of Australia, I recommend a minimum of 2 weeks, with at least 2-3 days per stop. Here's my tips and highlights on where to stop and what to see:

Sydney: 2-3 Days

Sydney is the biggest city in Australia, and the easiest place to get started if you are a first time visitor. With direct flights there from many major cities, it is easy to fly into and rent a car which is why I made this my first stop. Sydney is a destination in itself - you can easily spend a couple weeks here exploring around and the people are so nice! A few popular areas of interest are:

Bondi Beach: 2-3 Days

Technically part of Sydney and a very popular tourist destination, you can't miss Bondi Beach. It's one of the coolest places to visit any time of year in Australia, and probably one of my favorite beaches that is not part of the Caribbean! There is lots more to do than just the beach so I recommend staying a few days to really get a feel for this town. Great shops, food, outdoor activities, and the friendly people all make this the very popular place to visit that it is. Be sure to check out the Coogee Coastal Walk for stunning views of the beach, rock pools, and cliffs.

Blue Mountains National Park: 1 Day/Half Day from Sydney

Just about an hour outside of Sydney is this really beautiful national park, home of the famous Three Sisters in Katoomba ( pictured above upper left, and lower right ). This was my third stop on the road trip before heading out of Sydney. Perfect place to hike, bike, or check out some gorgeous waterfalls. If you are looking to spend some time in nature after being in the city, this is the perfect day-trip spot to do it. I went just before a rainfall which gave me these dramatic fluffy cloud photos making it feel like a fantasy land!

Byron Bay: 3-4 Days

I think Byron Bay might just be my most favorite coastal town ever!I really loved it here so I spent just a little over a week the first time I visited. It is about 9 hours from Sydney, but well worth that drive. There is a special vibe here, and even though it has become quite a popular tourist destination it still keeps it's small quaint beach town appeal, and offers something for everyone.

Things I enjoyed while staying in Byron Bay:

  • Byron Bay Lighthouse Walk: A beautiful coastal hike that offers spectacular views (pictured above) of the surrounding beaches, sea cliffs, wildlife, and rainforest..

  • Dolphin Kayak: Yes, you can rent kayaks and paddle right out to the dolphins!

  • Balcony Bar: My favorite restaurant in Bryon Bay! Right in the center of town with a view of the city, it has a great happy hour and weekly live music. It's also a fun place to grab brunch and just hang out.

  • The Beaches: they area all just awesome-even better if you surf!

Nightcap National Park: 1 Day/Half Day from Byron Bay

While looking to find a rainforest hike, I discovered this national park about an hour east of Byron Bay. This park has several trails through an ancient World Heritage-listed rainforest, most with creeks and waterfalls. I opted for the popular Minyon Falls. Pictured above, this trail is absolutely beautiful! The full hike is just about 8 miles out and back, but if you just want to get the view of the falls, there are well marked areas on the map where you can just walk up to the falls and get a great picture! I took this photo halfway through the trail looking back onto the Minyon Falls lookout point.

The Whitsunday Islands: 3 Days

Stop 6 on my road trip is the very beautiful Whitsunday Islands. I made a quick stop at the Gold Coast, but eventually just decided to make my way up to here. In my two visits, I've stayed at Long Island and Hamilton Island ( pictured above ). This was the point in my road trip to simply relax and enjoy the beautiful sunsets and warm beach activities. Getting there isn't hard, I took the ferry from Arlie Beach and spent 3 gorgeous days with a view like this out of my room! One of the best things to do here is visit the Great Barrier Reef - info below!

The Great Barrier Reef: 1 Day/Half Day from Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, or Port Douglas

It's one of the wonders of the world, and definitely one of the must-do's on your trip to Australia! I've snorkeled the reef twice, both from the Whitsunday Islands and further up from Port Douglas. I wish I had a better underwater photo but this was before I had my awesome GoPro camera, so I guess now I have to go back! But aside from this picture, everyone knows the beauty of the reef, and it should be a bucket list item to check off upon visiting Australia. My favorite snorkel trip I did was with this company, Quicksilver.

Port Douglas: 3 Days

This beautiful town has been my final stop on both of my road trips through Australia, and I keep going back because it still remains as one of my favorite coastal towns! Just about an hour drive north from Cairns, this place has it all- clear blue waters, warm sandy beaches, rainforests, and a very friendly tropical village vibe. It is also the only place in the world where two biological wonders meet- The Great Barrier Reef, and The Daintree Rainforest. If you'd actually like to see that, just drive up to Cape Tribulation which is as far as you can go north without a 4WD vehicle. For a more unique place to stay in this area, I recommend visiting the Thala Beach Nature Reserve. I booked a treehouse style bungalow and it was so cool! The video below is the view from my balcony. It felt like I was right in the jungle!

Highly recommend making a stop here and staying for a few days. It's one of the best places to end your road trip as you can easily fly back to Sydney from Cairns to catch your flight.

There are several other great stops on the east coast of Australia, but these happened to be my favorites. A few other places worth a stop if you have more time are:

  • Brisbane

  • The Gold Coast

  • Noosa - Fraser Island

My next road trip through Australia will be definitely be the southern and west coasts, as I have been dying to see the 12 Apostles and go to Perth. What's your favorite country to road trip? I have a list that keeps growing!

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