The Queensland Coast is, for many backpackers, THE reason to visit Australia altogether. Whether you’re keen on scuba diving or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, plowing around the world’s largest sand island in rugged 4x4s, sailing through the magnificent Whitsunday Islands, relaxing on sunny beaches made up of impossibly white sand, or simply party-hopping your way down the coast- the East Coast is a virtual Backpacker’s Playground. Pack your swimmers, your sunnies, your suncream, and your party hat- honestly, that's all you’ll really need...
The East Coast is easily accessible, both domestically and internationally. Brisbane and Cairns are the ideal ‘Launch Positions’ for a trip along the Queensland Coast, either traveling north from Brisbane, or south from Port Douglas/Cairns. Once you’ve arrived at your starting point, there are various methods of making your way up and down the coast- trains, planes, buses, and rental cars, to name a few. Hiring a car/camper van is the best way to go, as you have the most freedom, but buses and trains (And sometimes even flights) may be a cheaper way to get around. Package trips and ‘hop-on/hop-off’ bus tours (Check out www.ozexperience.com) are options as well- it all depends on your budget and your preferred travel style. Do your homework, research the options online, figure out what suits you best, and then GET OUT THERE! The sun, the sand, and everything else the East Coast has to offer is waiting...
- Visit the Great Barrier Reef. Innumerable companies run daily scuba and snorkeling trips out to various sites along the GBR. Port Douglas, just north of Cairns, is a bit less touristy, and a bit more low-key. Wherever you are staying, shop around, ask for discounts, and get people together to try to work a cheaper group rate.
- Hang out in Cairns. Cairns (Pronounced ‘Cans’) is a Backpacker’s Mecca- a party town that centers around the tourist industry. There are several bars that offer CHEAP meal deals- just ask at your hotel/hostel. Make sure to hit up the Cairns Lagoon- a man-made lagoon that sits right along the waterfront. Free bbqs, plenty of places to have a picnic, and a great place to cool off from the heat and humidity of FNQ (Far North Queensland).
- Self-drive Fraser Island. A ‘MUST’ when traveling along the Queensland Coast. Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, and has become a 4-wheel-drive playground for those willing to ‘rough it’ for a few days. Get set up with a group in Hervey Bay, kit out your 4x4, and head to the ferry terminal. Beautiful beaches, amazing adventures, and camping out under the stars await...
- Sail the Whitsundays. Yet another ‘MUST DO’ for backpacker’s along the East Coast. The Whitsunday archipelago is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Australia- the most famous being Whitehaven Beach. Jump on board a former America’s Cup racing yacht turned charter boat, and let the warm Australian breeze gently push you through the lazy days. Companies run trips of varying lengths out of Airlie Beach. Shop around, and ask for discounts.
- Party in Airlie Beach. With so many people passing through Airlie Beach on their way to and from the Whitsundays, it has inevitably morphed into a proper party town. So much so that some bars reserve entire tables for returning sailing trips, knowing that after a few relaxing days at sea, the passengers will be ready to move the party back onto dry land. Live music, late nights, and crazy stories- so it goes in Airlie Beach...
- Dive the Yongala. If you are a scuba diver, DO NOT MISS THIS. The SS Yongala sank in a storm off the coast of Queensland in March of 1911. Coming to rest in a flat, sandy area, it instantly became an artificial reef that has become the home of immense amounts of aquatic life. Divers have dubbed it the ‘Steroid Ship’ due to the large size of fish that school around the wreck. Remarkably still very much intact, the Yongala is widely considered one of the best wreck dive sites in the world. (Note: you need to be a PADI Advanced Open Water Certified Diver- or equivalent thereof- to do the dive, as it rests in 30m of water.)
- Visit the Australia Zoo. Located just outside of Brisbane, the Australia Zoo is an immense facility that features all of Australia’s amazing animals, along with some impressive displays of foreign animals as well (Namely, elephants and tigers). Started by Bob and Lyn Irwin in 1970, it gained notoriety under their late son Steve- The Crocodile Hunter. Now a major tourist attraction, the park is home to several GIGANTIC crocodiles, a koala photo zone, the ‘Crocoseum’, an interactive kangaroo feeding area, along with numerous other displays and activities. If you like animals, the Australia Zoo is the place to be. Well worth a day’s visit.
- Stop off along the route. If you’re doing the East Coast ‘right’, you’re doing it road trip-style. As with any road trip, it’s always the random stops along the way, the crazy points of interest and lucky finds you come across that make the trip so memorable. Look at the map, pay attention to random tourist signs, and don’t be afraid to stop off in the small towns. Rural Australians are infamously friendly, and are sure to share a few words of local wisdom with you along the way. Trust me- you never know what may happen, and on a road trip, that is a good thing.
- A night out in Fortitude Valley. Get ready- The Valley is CRAZY. Located just to the northeast of central Brisbane, The Valley is famous for its bars, pubs, nightclubs, and nightlife. Nestled just next to Chinatown, The Valley gets going early, and if you want it to, the party goes all night long. Having spent a lot of time hanging out in King’s Cross in Sydney, I thought I had seen it all. Not so. The Valley is in a league of its own.
- Chill out on the Sunshine Coast- Comprised of several small towns along the coast, the Sunshine Coast is well known for its amazing beaches, its laid-back vibe, and its amazing hotels and hostels. There is always something going on, be it a music festival, an art fair, or any number of other annual events. The Sunshine Coast is exactly that- sunshine on the coast. A great place to relax and soak up the rays for a few days.
- Watch out for ‘stingers’- jellyfish season along the East Coast runs between December and June. Many beaches are netted to provide a safe swimming zone, but ‘stinger suits’ are still required when snorkeling/scuba diving out on the GBR. Generally, these suits are provided with the cost of the excursion/equipment rental.
- Port Douglas is a good alternative to the tourist-crazy city of Cairns. Only an hour north, PD is easy to get to via shuttle, and is a great spot to spend a few days. Its close proximity to Cape Tribulation allows a great day trip into the Daintree National Rainforest, and generally speaking, PD dive companies offer smaller sized day-trip excursions to less frequently visited spots along the GBR.
- If you get motion/seasickness- DON’T FORGET TO PACK YOUR DRAMAMINE FOR THE TRIP TO/FROM THE GREAT BARRIER REEF. A day spent being seasick is a great way to ruin your trip to the reef.
- DON’T FORGET TO PACK YOUR DIVER CERTIFICATION CARD. No card- no dive.
- Many dive operators offer underwater cameras for hire on their excursions. If you’re keen on getting some photos of your dive/snorkeling trip, get a group together and share the cost. Buddy up within the group, and take turns with the camera during the dives. This way, it’s cheaper, and you actually get some photos with YOU in them, rather than spending more money to take pictures of fish and other divers.
- Ask your hotel/hostel booking desk for any local knowledge they might be willing to share. Local swimming holes, good hikes, secluded beaches- the locals know all the secret spots, and if you manage to get on their good side, they might just fill you in on a few. Even better, they might load up their truck and take you there themselves...
Whitsunday Islands/Airlie Beach-
- If you are looking to purchase some authentic Aboriginal art or crafts- and a visit to Darwin and the Northern Territories don’t figure into your AUS travel plans- Cairns and Port Douglas are great spots to do some shopping. You will find a better selection and more authentic arts and crafts here than you will in places further south (i.e. Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne). Shop around, try to get away from the main ‘Tourist Shopping District’, and negotiate prices when able.
- When booking your Whitsunday sailing trip, shop around, compare prices, and try to get as many free nights of accommodation in Airlie Beach before/after you trip as you can. Many tour operators partner with the local hotels/hostels, and know that accommodation is part of the deal. Dust off the charm, break out the ol’ Jedi Mind Trick, and see what you can get.
- Charge your batteries before the trip, as electrical outlets are scarce on the boats.
- As far as the actual boats are concerned, make sure you know what you are getting yourself into when you sing on for a cruise. ‘Party boat’ means exactly that- a virtual non-stop party for the 2-3 days of the trip. If you do go the ‘party boat’ route, don’t expect the nicest boat, don’t expect the cleanest bunks, and don’t expect the other passengers to take pity on you if you decide you’ve had enough of the loud music, dancing, and drinking, and just want to get some rest. Not happening. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, stick with one of the ‘tamer’ trips- you’ll still have AMPLE opportunity to cut loose.
- Regardless of what type of boat you book, it is wise to plan your ‘consumption’ ahead of time, prepare accordingly (One word: GOON), and then PACE YOURSELF. There are no bottle shops out on the islands, and when (Not ‘if’, but ‘when’, ‘cause it WILL happen...) the party gets too crazy on the first night, you’ll find that alcohol will be at a PREMIUM the last couple of nights of the trip. If you’ve stayed the course, you’ll be in good shape, and if you find yourself with a surplus, you could even pay off your trip by dealing the extras to your thirsty fellow passengers.
- Again, DON’T FORGET THE DRAMAMINE, and if you’re diving during the sailing trip, DON’T FORGET YOU DIVER CERTIFICATION CARD.
Fraser Island/Hervey Bay-
- Fraser Island tour operators have a similar set-up to that which is found in Airlie Beach- free accommodation provided at partnering hotels/hostels. As always- shop around, compare prices, and negotiate for as much as you can.
- Charge your batteries before you head to the island. There are limited electrical outlets at the campsites, and you don’t want your camera dying on you in the middle of the trip.
- A self-drive tour here is the way to go- you’ll be free to roam around the enormous sand island at your discretion, apart from the necessity of monitoring the timing of high tide. You’ll get thrown in with a group of 8-10 other passengers, teamed up within the group to kit out your 4x4 (Sleeping gear, food, and beverages), and then pointed towards the ferry terminal, set free to fill next 2-3 days with whatever the group wants. It’s pretty awesome.
- Keep it simple when shopping for food- you will be cooking ‘camp’ style, for a lot of people, so nothing too involved. Also, don’t get food that spoils easily- ice is at a premium on the island, and you and your group will be better off buying food that will last.
- Same goes for beverages. Space is at a premium in the vehicle- 10 people, all their overnight gear, small personal bags, and food for 3 days takes up a lot of space. It’s up to the group how cramped they’re willing to get to make space for beverages. Discuss it with the group, make a plan, get enough, and again, pace yourselves.
- Mozzy spray- don’t forget it.
- Same goes for suncream.
- Keep your tent zipped up at ALL TIMES- not only will this keep the dingos out, but it will also prevent any other unwanted pests (Mosquitos, flies, bugs, etc.) from ruining your night when you eventually try to get some sleep.
- Fraser Island MUST DOs: SS Maheno, Champagne Pools, Lake Mackenzie, Eli Creek, Indian Head.