A Backpackers Guide to East Coast Australia – Brisbane to Cairns

A Backpackers Guide to East Coast Australia – Brisbane to Cairns

Australia’s east coast has long been the nectar which many a backpacker flocks to. A huge coastline which is sprinkled with amazing sights, unbelievable adventures and stunning beaches.

With so many possibilities every east coast adventure is sure to be unique.

Sure, you might visit the same places and stay in the same hostels as your fellow backpacker but it’s the many people that you share your journey with that help create that one of a kind adventure.

With those irreplaceable memories and stories that you retell again and again for years to come.

Whether you are seeking an adventure, looking to explore the beauty of east coast Australia or are just simply after a good time the sheer variety on offer guarantees you will find exactly what you are after and then some.

Spanning 2 states and thousands of Kms there is far too much to share with you to fit into one blog post. So, I’ve decided to split it up. Arguably hoarding the cream of the east coast, Queensland is where my Australian adventure began and so it feels like the best place to start here.

As I travelled the Australian east coast, I noticed that everyone I met was doing one of 2 things, travelling north or south. There was perhaps a handful of people that had flown/drove/bussed in for one particular point.

Whether you choose to start in Cairns and travel south or travel north and finish there is completely up to you. What I can guarantee is that you will keep bumping into the same people.

In fact, there was this one guy I met in Agnes Water who it turned out had booked onto the same things as I had done and was staying in the same hostels for the remainder of the journey up to Cairns.

Needless to say, we became good friends and it was nice to know that there was going to be someone I knew on my journey but wasn’t obliged to hang out with if I didn’t want to.

These are my cannot miss stops you simply need to include when planning your east coast Australia adventure.


The Gold Coast

My east coast Austrlia adventure started in the most southernly point of Queensland, the Gold Coast, and progressed north chasing the warmer winter climes.

The Gold Coast, named for is golden beaches which stretch over 57Km is a very popular tourist destination. However, it divides opinion amongst backpacker. Some preferring the more relaxed atmosphere of Byron bay.

I loved its beaches, it’s shopping.

Gold Coast view from Burliegh Heads, east coast Australia
The view back along the Gold Coast from Burliegh Heads

I know that’s a completely “girly” thing to say but the Gold Coast is home to the Pacific Fair shopping centre which is the closest thing to the Trafford Centre that I’ve come across over here.

This cool shopping centre has all the shops you need, restaurants and a cinema. Plus, there are lots of places to chill out including a few day beds because you know shopping is tiring work.

While I didn’t do much partying while in town, the Gold Coast is known for its nightlife and so if it’s a good night out your after then you’re in luck.

For those after an adrenaline rush, well the Gold Coast is home to several theme Parks including SeaWorld (feel free to not go here in protest), movie world and wet ‘n’ wild. There are several different ticketing options including multi-park passes and season tickets for those sticking around a little longer.

Step a little further away from the hustle and bustle of Surfers Paradise and there’s still a plethora of things to do. Whether its hiking one of the hinterland trails, visiting the Currumbin wildlife park or taking a day trip up to Tambourine Mountain, the Gold Coast is so much more than the beach.


Brisbane

Just and hour north of the Gold Coast and you find yourself in the Capital of Queensland, Brisbane.

Originally a Penal Settlement, there are still 2 of the original buildings that were built by the prisoners still standing. My favourite of which is the Old Windmill. Built on the river Brisbane the city there are 15 major bridges that connect both sides of the city.

When you first arrive get your bearings quickly by joining a Brisbane Greeters free walking tour. Ran by volunteers these guys are full of amazing knowledge about the city and are happy to tailor their tour to suit your interests.

Brisbane, river view east coast australia
A view of the city from the river

While smaller than Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane has a friendliness about it. It is welcoming in a way that a smaller town is yet easy enough to get around as you would hope from a city.

No trip to Brisbane is complete without a visit to Southbank.

Home to the Cultural and arts centre of Brisbane you can easily get your museum fix here.

When you’re all cultured out just stroll a little further along the riverbank until you reach the haven that is the parklands and manmade beach.

The free to use, open air swimming pools complete with their own beach is a popular spot on a hot day. Especially when just meters from the pool you can grab an ice cream and/or a beer.

You can find out more about what to do in Brisbane by reading this post;

Exploring Brisbane: Convicts, Culture and Conflicts.

Noosa

It is said that while tourists go to the Gold Coast, the locals go to Noosa.

Just an hour or so north of Brisbane and you will find the delights of Noosa. A small town still very much flying under the radar of mainstream tourism it has become popular with Brisbanites looking for a quick getaway.

Sneakily they forget to mention the beauty of this place. The stunning beaches and untouched wilderness, the contrast to the Gold Coast is stark.

Plan to stay here longer than you think.

Self guided kayak your on the Noosa Everglades, Australia
Anja and I setting off on our self guided day of Kayaking

I certainly did not have enough time to explore this place properly. However long you do end up staying though, I cannot recommend enough visiting the Everglades. One of only 2 in the world the Noosa Everglades are breathtakingly beautiful and totally crocodile free (bonus).

I chose to kayak the waterways and you can read all about my adventure here.

Fraser Island

The largest sand island in the world seems to be on every backpacker’s bucket list and if it isn’t on yours it should be.

Full of stunning beaches, creeks you can drink out of, giant rock pools you can swim in oh and did I mention there are no sealed roads?

Accessible by ferry and by 4WD only it’s the off-roading adventure you’ve always dreamed off.

Never been off-roading before?

Not worry neither had I.

Fraser Island Tag-along tours with Nomads
I did my tag-along adventure with Nomads

Join a tag-a-long tour and you will be in safe hands. Tag-a-longs are basically a group tour where you are your tour guide who drives the first vehicle. You and tour fellow adventurers then share the driving of the convoy vehicles and you all have an awesome off-roading adventure.

From almost rolling one of the cars to having lunch with a friendly Kookaburra, Fraser Island is not to be missed.

Read more about my off-roading adventure here;
Fraser Island: The Ultimate Off-Roading Adventure

Agnes Water/1770

This place is so underrated.

I’ve met so many people that just used it as a stopover on their way to Airlie beach. Don’t. Stay longer and enjoy what this historic little place has to offer.

1770 is the place where Captain Cook first stepped onto Queensland Soil back in 1770. The history here is enough to warrant even a few days.

Add to this that it is the last furthest place north where you can safely surf. Well it would be rude not to take that opportunity, right?

Don’t know how to surf yet? No problem you can jump on a surf lesson for just for just $25 for 3 hours

learning to surf at Reef2Beach
Surfs Up!

There’s a whole host of different ways to explore this small part of the world. Hire a bike from the Travelbugs shop or jump on a Larc tour. Perhaps kayaking around the bay is more your thing?

Or perhaps you’re after a more extreme adventure. One where you can test your survival skills in the Australian Bush. One where you get to camp, nestled behind a sand dune. One where you get to sit chilling out round a fire in an evening after a day’s hard exploring?

If that sounds like a bit of you then follow in my footsteps and have your own Castaway adventure.

1770 Castaway adventure
That feeling when you conquer nature

Read more about my Castaway adventure in this post;

1170 Castaway: A Survivors tale

The Whitsundays

Like Fraser Island, the Whitsundays grace many a backpacker’s east coast Australia bucket list and for good reason.

A group of 74 islands harbouring a wealth of marine life its an adventure of a completely different nature. Bursting with a rainbow of fish and coral in calm, sheltered waters it’s the perfect place to go snorkelling even if you’re not that confident in water.

Then there’s Whitehaven beach.

The Whitsundays sailing adventure Whitehaven beach Avatar
When you’ve got the beach all to yourself

The picture-perfect paradise beach. The one with the dazzling white sand and the crystal clear turquoise blue waters. That beach you’ve seen a thousand Instagram photos of is just as stunning in real life.

Yes, you can get on board a day trip and “see” it all in a day. Totally fine if you’re stuck for time or money. I’d recommend shelling out a little more and turning your Whitsundays trip into a sailing adventure.

I mean how often do you get the chance to live aboard a boat for a few days?

And I’m not talking about those floating hotels you call cruise liners. I’m talking the smaller boats where you feel the movement of the ocean more keenly and live in limited space accommodation like real sailors.

Despite feeling a little nausea on the first day, I loved my sailing adventure in the Whitsundays. There’s just something about lying on a net above the ocean looking up at the milky way above that is rather calming.

Read more about my Sailing adventure in the Whitsundays here; 
The Whitsundays: Here’s why you shouldn’t do a day trip

Magnetic Island

I know, I know another Island adventure but wait hear me out.

Just a short 20-minute ferry ride from Townsville you will arrive in the Koala capital of Australia.

With more wild Koala’s per square meter than any other place in Australia this alone was a good enough reason to add it to my East Coast Australia adventure.

I arrived on Magnetic Island, or Maggie as the locals like to call her, not really knowing what to expect. Friends I had met along the east coast had recommended hiring a car to get around the island. It was soon evident that this was going to be the best way to see the island.

Luckily, I was able to find some like-minded travellers and we all pitched in to hire an open-top 4WD for 24 hours.

magnetic island forts panorama
The panoramic views from the forts were spectacular

From exploring the old fortress, to trekking through the forest to find hidden beaches that we had all to ourselves Magnetic Island is an adventure waiting to happen.

Whether you want to snorkel in crystal clear waters of its many beaches, take in the 360° panoramic views from the old fortress or go in search of wild Koala bears don’t miss out on this lesser known jewel of east coast Australia.

Read more – The Ultimate Backpacker Guide to Magnetic Island

Mission Beach

Mission beach – the adrenaline capital of the east coast. Cool, I thought, I will definitely have to stop there.

It’s a small town with not much going on. A town that is best explored if you have a vehicle and infinitely harder if you don’t.

It is however, most well known within the backpacker community as a place to skydive. Most notably because you can land on the beach.

Skydiving is really not my thing though. So why did I stop here?

Well apart from being able to stay in a treehouse hostel in the rainforest?

For the Tully River.

I got my adrenaline fix by riding the rapids through the rainforest and words cannot describe how much fun I had.

Ok so maybe this will help.

whitewater rafting tully river adventure
Riding the rapids like a boss!

A friend I met along my east coast Australia adventure also rode the rapids a few days after me. Now he was extremely nervous because he isn’t very confident in water. He, however, came back having loved it. He even managed to swim one of the rapids too!

The Whitewater rapids on the Tully river was by far my favourite thing that I did while travelling the east coast of Australia.

It combined both the adrenaline pumping sport that I first had a taste of a few years earlier in Canada but also the stunning, untouched beauty of the rainforest.

Curious? Read all about what you can expect to get up to on your Whitewater rafting adventure

Cairns

Whether it was because it was full of people I had met on my journey up the east coast or perhaps it was the endless things to do and warmth of the winter sun, either way I loved Cairns.

So much so that I doubled the amount of time that I had intended to stay there.

With its wide streets, vibrant markets and bounty of good places to eat, Cairns is a perfect holiday destination.

Perfect for a chilled day by the pool or an action-packed adventure exploring the wealth of natural beauty and wonders on offer.

Jump on a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef or go all out and choose a liveaboard.

Venture in the rainforest in search of crocodiles and cassowaries and deserted beaches.

Daintree Rainforest
When you turn a corner and see this

Go chasing waterfalls around the Atherton Tablelands or bungy jumping from the treetops.

Or party the night away at the infamous Gilligan’s backpackers’ hostel, bar and nightclub.

Josephine waterfalls Queensland Australia
The powerfully, beautiful Josephine waterfalls

Cairns was mine, and many others end of the line, but it isn’t the last place you can visit on the east coast.

Just a little further up the road is the town of Port Douglas, the most northernly point you can moor your boat (if you happen to have one that is).

Read more - 12 awesome things to do in Cairns

Want to go further still? Well grab yourself a car and you can explore further heading up to Cape Tribulation and then onto Cooktown. I haven’t yet made it to Cooktown but if/when I do, I will be sure to update you guys on just what to expect and everything you can get up to there.

Until Next Time

Keep Adventuring

brisbane to cairns east coast australia adventure pin
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