Route: The Pacific Coast Way stretches along the majority of the Bruce Highway between Cairns and the Gold Coast, taking in all the highlights of the Queensland coastline along the way. We chose to tackle half of it, beginning in the Whitsundays gateway of Airlie Beach and driving south to the Gold Coast
The moment you lay your eyes on the sparkling Pacific Ocean, you just know you are in a special part of the world.
Queensland’s Whitsundays are just that – not only are they a group of some of the most idyllic islands in the world, they are also a coastline home to some of Australia’s most beloved and special resort towns. They don’t call this the ‘Sunshine State’ for nothing – most days the sun is shining, the warm air embraces you like a hug and you can literally smell the tropics. People come here every year for a dose of ‘the good life’ and many attribute it to the fountain of youth.
One of our favourite drives in Australia, the Pacific Coast Way, is so special because it follows the Pacific Ocean the entire way. There are not many sections of this 1000+k road trip where you can’t glace out of the car window and spot the aquamarine ocean. It means there are countless places to stop, stay, swim, and soak in the sun.
Whilst the Pacific Coast Way officially runs between Cairns in the far north and the Gold Coast in the far south of the state (about 1,700km apart), and along one main highway (so you can not get lost!), you can also take on the drive between any two points along the way.
We flew to Proserpine (Whitsunday) Airport to begin our adventure, and began with a few days in Airlie Beach – the main jumping off point to the Whitsunday Islands and a bustling resort town.
Flanked by Conway National Park to its south, and the ocean to the east, Airlie Beach is the perfect place for lovers of the great outdoors. Life here revolves around spending time outside, and people alternate between fishing, sailing, heading out to the islands for diving and snorkelling, and of course, good old-fashioned swimming and sunbathing. The main part of town boasts a lagoon for safe swimming for all the family year-round. It is the perfect place to throw a rug down on the grass and spend the day.
Head to Shute Harbour across town to throw a fishing line in – you’ll always be in good company. And if you can’t catch dinner, head to the Whitsunday Sailing Club for a meal and a sundowner on their expansive deck.
We got up with the birds one morning and went to Abell Point Marina where we were greeted by dozens and dozens of boats, from fishing charters to super yachts, gently rocking on the water in the early morning light. We were jumping on board with Ocean Rafting to spend a day in the Whitsunday Islands.
Ocean Rafting aims to offer guests ‘three days in one’ amongst the islands, via an exhilarating ride out to the islands on their super-fast inflatable vessels that significantly cut the travel time. This also adds to the overall experience – guests get a thrilling ride to and between the islands as well as all the highlights of three different locations during the day.
Our first stop was a calm inlet of Hook Island known as Butterfly Bay. Part of the Whitsundays Islands national park, it is a dedicated ‘green zone’ and World-Heritage site.
We waste no time pulling on wetsuits and jumping into the water with our snorkels, and spend the next 45 minutes exploring the pristine underwater world of the Whitsundays. One of the first things we spot is Hawksbill Turtle who swims amongst some of the best coral to be found in the region and everyone young and old agrees it is a magical start to the day.
We head around the corner to our next snorkelling site and are welcomed by a giant grouper waiting for us in the water. It is evident ‘George’ likes to greet guests like us and he is not shy about swimming up to the snorkelers, along with schools of other reef fish who literally surround us.
Our next and final destination is Whitsunday Island, home to the number one beach in Australia, world-renowned Whitehaven Beach. After lunch, most of us head on the walk up to the Hill Inlet lookout to cast our eyes over the 7km of silica sand that forms this natural wonder and the views are simply breathtaking.
Back on the beach itself, despite the heat it is easy to walk along the pure white sand due to its silica content that keeps it cool. We could spend forever on the its shore, splashing in the crystal clear water and lapping up the postcard scenery that surrounds us, but it is drawing towards the end of the day and one last wild ride back to Airlie Beach awaits us.
We are staying at the BIG4 Airlie Cove Resort and Caravan Park just a few minutes from town and it is the perfect retreat for the whole family. To our delight, our recently turned one-year-old Harry takes his first steps as we are relaxing in the park, a testament perhaps to the relaxed atmosphere of the holiday.
The park is full of things to do, from tropical pools, a splash park and waterslide, to the hundreds of visiting lorikeets that appear from the neighbouring National Park each morning to greet us.
It is hard to tear ourselves away from Airlie Beach. On previous visits we have taken yacht charters, dive charters and even scenic flights in the region and we are always overwhelmed by how much there is to do here, but it’s time to get on the road and head south.
You could literally stop anywhere along the route, and we break our journey next in the town of Yeppoon – the gateway to yet another tropical Queensland Island, Great Keppel Island. Basing ourselves at the BIG4 Capricorn Palms Holiday Village, about 8kms from Yeppoon and 300m from pretty Mulambin Beach, it is the perfect Capricorn Coast location, and we can easily take advantage of the revamped waterfront precinct in Yeppoon (great for kids!) or catch the ferry over to Great Keppel Island.
It is just a 30 minute transfer to the biggest of the Keppel Island group and upon arrival, you take your shoes off and sink your feet into the soft white sand that surrounds the island.
We met with Brett from Great Keppel Island Adventures, the perfect way to explore the island for the day, and hopped on board their kayaks for a leisurely paddle in the crystal clear waters.
Great Keppel Island, is one of the treasures of the Southern Great Barrier Reef and enjoys that perfect, laid-back island life with no less than 17 sandy beaches to choose from. Fringing Barrier Reef protects the island, making the waters calm – perfect for a kayak adventure.
We paddled to some of the top spots around the island and were able to fit our snorkels and simply drop off the side of our kayak into an aquarium-like world of reef fish, parrot fish, coral trout and the odd grouper or two.
Kayaking and snorkelling of course work up an appetite and our advice is to drop into the Great Keppel Island Hideaway Bar & Bistro for a feed and a drink before getting back on the ferry to the mainland.
After enjoying the Southern Great Barrier Reef region, it was time to continue our journey south. There are plenty of places to stop on the drive between Yeppoon and Fraser Island, our next destination, including Seventeen Seventy and Bundaberg (drop into the rum distillery to see how the famous brew is made!).
Once you make it to Harvey Bay or Rainbow Beach you can jump on the Ferry and Barge services that operate to the island. Fraser Island is 4WD vehicle only – and the ‘roads’ on the island are all sand tracks so either leave your vehicle behind here or bring your 4WD across. We took our vehicles for our own 4WD adventure and set up camp for one of the most memorable few days on our travels.
I’ll never forget navigating our way through the waves as we drove along the sandy highway of the island – 75 mile beach. Exciting and slightly terrifying for us first timers! (but so much fun).
The World Heritage island is the largest sand island in the world at around 110 kms long and over 20 kms wide, and there’s no better way to get a true sense of just how unique it is than by air.
We decided to jump on a scenic flight to check it out. Sure enough when we met him, our pilot was kicking back on a beach chair on the sand, wearing board shorts with his plane parked beside him; he looked like he was the happiest pilot in the world.
As soon as we took off, the swirling sand dunes below us looked like a painting; with 45 dune lakes (including the world’s largest) beneath us and the scale of the island becoming apparent. You can also see something you can’t see anywhere else in the world – where rainforest grows in sand at elevations above 200m.
Back on the sand, the sun was going down and before we headed back to our campsite, we visited Lake McKenzie to watch the colours of dusk settle on the still dune lake touted as the ‘jewel’ of the island. A spectacular way to end the day.
After our Fraser Island Adventure, we continued down the QLD coast towards the Gold Coast. Of course, it’s hard to go past our favourite resort town of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast without stopping (and we highly recommend it) but our final goal was the Queensland/New South Wales border where we were going to end our road trip in Tweed Heads at the BIG4 Tweed Billabong Holiday Park, which boasts one of the best waterparks we have seen in Australia and will certainly capture the attention of the family – young and old.
We loved the location to explore the Gold Coast and aside from the theme parks and obviously the endless beaches, our favourite experiences were a visit to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary to hold some furry koalas and feed the crocs (!) and a walk through pristine Burleigh Head National Park.
We took the ‘Rainforest Circuit’ walk, a 45 minute / 2.3km return to Tungun Lookout where we were treated to the sight of whales breaching in the Pacific below us. With views stretching to Surfers Paradise and beyond, it was the perfect ending to our incredible Pacific Coast Way road trip.
Have you driven part or all of the Pacific Coast Way? Let us know in the comments!