Scenic routes: five of the best road trips along Australia's east coast

Jennifer Ennion
·7-min read

With Billy Joel blaring through the 4WD, surfboards and Sups strapped to the roof racks and the boot packed to the brim with skateboards, sand buckets and wetsuits, I travel Highway 1, up and down Australia’s east coast.

As a travel writer, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done the trip from the chilled-out tropics of far north Queensland down to the empty wilderness of Victoria, on extended holidays and long weekends.

Whichever you’ve got time for, the Pacific coast of Australia has a beach bag full of salty adventure. So, as borders reopen, here are a handful of my favourites.

The (extended) Great Ocean Road, Victoria

Perfect for: A five-day trip
Trip type:
One way
Leave from: Torquay (one hour out of Melbourne)

We’ve all seen the photos of surfers at Torquay and the crumbling 12 Apostles, but there are plenty of other worthy and lesser-known stops along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. The route officially starts in Torquay, about 104km south-west of Melbourne, and ends at Allansford, just shy of Port Fairy. It stretches 243km and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t skirt the coastline the entire time, winding its way through farmland too.

Aside from Torquay, Lorne and those famous limestone stacks, make tracks to wild Johanna Beach, historic Cape Otway Lightstation and the tiny culinary town of Timboon. The best time to go is summer, when the Southern Ocean loses some of its bite, but avoid public holidays, when holiday park prices spike and you can get caught out paying $100 per night for a site.

Central Coast loop, NSW

Perfect for: A long weekend
Trip type:
Loop
Leave from: Sydney

Patonga and the headland at Brisbane Water National Park on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
Patonga and the headland at Brisbane Water national park on the Central Coast of New South Wales. Photograph: Richard I’Anson/Getty Images

With countless surf beaches, hiking trails, ocean pools and mountain biking, it’s no surprise plenty of Sydneysiders spend their holidays on the Central Coast. Only 90 minutes north of the city, it’s an idyllic getaway centred around sand and sea. Start a road trip in the pretty fishing village of Patonga, where you can stay at the chic Boathouse Hotel Patonga and pop over to Pearl Beach for swimming.

You’ll then want to make your way to Killcare, where highlights include hiking through Bouddi National Park to a sandy cove for a picnic, and grabbing coffee in peaceful Hardys Bay. Your next stop should be Terrigal, where you can bed down at the Crowne Plaza, enjoy a spot of boutique shopping and eat out at some of the Coast’s best restaurants. Round out your stay visiting Norah Head Lighthouse and surfing at Soldiers Beach. A great locals’ secret is Bateau Bay beach, between Terrigal and Norah Head. It’s a hidden cove of sand with child-friendly swimming, snorkelling and surfing.

Sunshine Coast hinterland loop, Queensland

Perfect for: A week-long trip
Trip type:
Loop
Leave from: Brisbane

The view at sunset from the top of Mt Ngungun, in the Glass House Mountains of Queensland
The view at sunset from the top of Mt Ngungun, in the Glass House Mountains of Queensland. Photograph: Posnov/Getty Images

If you’re craving an east coast adventure away from the sea, the Sunshine Coast hinterland makes for a wonderful week-long road trip that blends nature and great food.

For holiday exercise, start at the Glass House Mountains, about an hour’s drive north of Brisbane. There are a tonne of hiking trails across the 11 peaks that make up the Glass House Mountains and I highly recommend scaling the short but sweet Mt Ngungun (2.8km return) to catch sunset from the peak.

Your next stop should be the hinterland hub of Maleny, where the main street is lined with bustling cafes, artisan producers (check out Maleny Food Co.) and boutique clothing and homewares stores. Be sure to stock up on your road-trip snacks in The Maple Street Co-op.

Heading north, you’ll then want to make time to stop in Montville, another cute one-street town with boutiques and cafes worth wandering into. A hinterland road trip isn’t complete without spending time in Eumundi. Admittedly, it is popular and can get busy, especially when the sprawling markets are on (Wednesdays and Saturdays), but you’ll find a slice of serenity in local favourite The Store Eumundi, where you can grab a bite to eat and pick up gourmet goodies for the road.

The Great Barrier Reef drive, Queensland

Perfect for: A week-long trip
Trip type:
One way
Leave from: Cairns

What better way to banish Covid cabin fever than by heading underwater to explore the Great Barrier Reef? Spend a couple of days in Cairns taking advantage of the numerous snorkel, scuba dive and island tours, then hit the Great Barrier Reef drive, a short but oh-so-scenic 140km stretch north to Cape Tribulation.

Give yourself a full week to savour the route, first meandering from Cairns to the resort village of Palm Cove, where days are spent dining on mud crab and devouring beachside gelato (splurge on dinner under the palms at Nu Nu Restaurant). Then head to Thala Beach Nature Reserve, one of Australia’s best eco lodges. You’ll want a night or two here so you can really soak up the serenity – it is a little on the pricey side, but for your money you get a private beach with foreshore hammocks, free guided walks around the expansive grounds, as well as the tiered pools and an open-air restaurant with impressive views.

Next, it’s on to Port Douglas, where the pace picks up and you can lap up great restaurants, bars and boutique shopping. It’s also a good spot from which to hit the water for another reef visit, as plenty of boat operators leave from here.

Afterwards, make your way to Cape Tribulation but be sure to detour via Mossman Gorge, where you can immerse yourself in Kuku Yalanji culture.

Once you catch a car ferry across the Daintree River to eventually reach your final destination, you’ll be tempted to stop and flop, but instead visit The Daintree Discovery Centre for an overview of the area’s incredible biodiversity, before stopping at The Daintree Tea Company’s roadside stall to pick up some pure local tea.

The ultimate east coast itinerary: Melbourne to Cairns

Perfect for: Six weeks or longer
Trip type:
One way
Leave from: Melbourne

If a week away really isn’t going to cut it, there is no better road trip in Australia than the east coast top to bottom, or vice versa. The best way to tackle this epic jaunt is to hire a motorhome in Melbourne and spend a few months calling into regional towns on your way to Cairns, where you can return your camper and fly home.

A great place to kick off your trip is in Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory, where you can unwind on empty beaches and enjoy some of Australia’s most sought-after campsites. Fishermen will then love spending time in a tinny at Lakes Entrance, and it’s worth stopping a while in Mallacoota to spend much-needed tourism dollars in the bushfire-ravaged community.

In NSW, call into Narooma for the famous oysters, go kite-surfing in Gerroa, enjoy café culture (and remnants of counter culture) in Bellingen, and peace-out in Lennox Head, the smaller, surfie sister of Byron Bay.

When you cross over into Queensland, you’re spoilt for choice with destinations. Bypass the city crowds and catch the ferry to Moreton Island, a playground for 4WDers and wreck divers.

Rainbow Beach should be your next stop but don’t simply chill in town; instead, watch the tides and journey to Double Island Point for a surfing and swimming adventure. Other stops you’ll want to make are Yeppoon (where there’s a great, free beachside pool), Bowen (an underrated Whitsundays gem), and Mission Beach (where you can mountain bike through the rainforest). Once in Cairns, day-trip to tropical islands like Fitzroy or Green for snorkelling and an end-of-trip high.