14-day road trip: Use what yo’ mama (nature) gave you
Chasing an epic adventure and serious outdoor entertainment? I know just the place.
The standard Queensland spiel often goes golden beaches, palm trees and pineapples… but that’s only scratching the surface.
This itinerary maps out a few of the lesser-known natural masterpieces into one ultimate road trip – where surfing (of a different kind), sailing el solo, and Spanish castles are all on the menu.
So if you can carve out two weeks to see the other side of Queensland, this one’s for you.
DAY 1: THE SCENIC RIM
Start your engines with a touch of luxurious #lodgelife at Spicers Peak Lodge – Australia’s highest non-alpine lodge, situated in the Scenic Rim, 1100 metres above sea level. Not what you expected, is it?
You might only be two hours from Brisbane but you’ll feel in another world entirely, overlooking rolling farmland and the World Heritage-listed Main Range National Park.
Rather than spending hours on the highway, the aim of the game today is to unwind and savour the all-inclusive luxury of this boutique property with infinity pool, cosy fireplace, spa treatments and incredible local produce.
DAY 2: SCENIC RIM TO THE GOLD COAST (170km)
Wake up your senses (as well as your body) on a guided hike and observe the ‘seven peaks of hell’, or join a 4WD Ridgetop Discovery Tour before you drive through the Gold Coast Hinterland down to the coast.
We all know the ‘Goldie’ is synonymous with surfing, but there’s another type of barrel making waves in this neighbourhood – the local craft beer scene.
After a surf (body surfing is surfing, too), step off the sand and into a number of outstanding breweries such as BALTER in Currumbin, where you’re likely to bump into one of the local surfing legends. Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, Bede Durbidge and Josh Kerr established BALTER with mate and master brewer Scott Hargrave and it’s quickly become one of the best spots on the coast to grab a beer sampler and witness barrel magic.
Stay: Gold Coast (check out accommodation options here).
DAY 3: GOLD COAST TO BRISBANE (80km)
More good vibes await in Brisbane, a short one-hour drive from the Gold Coast where the city’s laid-back lifestyle continues the outdoor entertainment theme.
Refuel with a Milton Mango (local code for a XXXX beer) and a dish from the Eat Street Markets, on every Friday and Saturday evening (and Sundays in winter). It’s one of Australia’s most interactive market experiences, accommodating a ship-load of mini restaurants dishing out a world of street food.
Then, soak up the city’s energy at one of a number of live music venues, such as The Triffid – a former WWII aircraft hanger transformed into a trendy music venue by Powderfinger bassist John ‘JC’ Collins.
Keen to stay a few more days? Here’s how to do Brisbane City’s precincts like a local.
Stay: Brisbane (you might be keen on one of these new hotels).
DAYS 4-5: BRISBANE TO LADY ELLIOT ISLAND (360km + scenic flight)
Get your swimmers and snorkel ready, today you’re off to the Great Barrier Reef (but not as you know it). Your destination is a tiny, lesser-known coral cay that holds some of the most exciting marine encounters in the world.
Allow four to five hours to drive from Brisbane to Bundaberg (with a stop for a cheeky ice-cream from Mammino in Childers). Once there, catch a seaplane across to Lady Elliot Island, situated 80 kilometres north-east of Bundaberg on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
This pristine coral cay is positioned in a protected ‘Green Zone’, so it’s only accessible by air. For this reason, and many others, Lady Elliot is a mecca for snorkelling and diving enthusiasts, offering you the best chance of experiencing majestic manta rays face-to-face.
You don’t have to be a diver to experience the best parts of the reef. Entering the water at the northern or western sides of the island will allow you to drift-snorkel over some of the healthiest, abundant coral reefs and bommies. Expect to see groupers, glittering schools of multi-coloured anthias, puppy-like parrot fish crunching up algae and coral, as well as turtles galore!
The lagoon is a must for newbie snorkellers and young kids – it’s a safe place to explore this underwater paradise and will spark a life-long love for marine encounters.
One of the best things about this tiny coral island is sleeping on the Great Barrier Reef. Lying in bed you will hear the tinkling of coral being gently pushed back and forth by the water and wonder how you ever fell asleep without it.
DAY 6: LADY ELLIOT ISLAND TO AIRLIE BEACH (770kms)
Time to set sail for the Whitsundays, which you’ll find 770 kilometres north. Yep, it’s a biggie, but the final destination is worth every minute of this drive.
If the thought of eight hours in the car is making you twitch (or you know the kids will drive you batty after the first two), here are 66 things to do on Queensland’s ‘Route 66’ aka the Pacific Coast Way.
You’ll pinch yourself when Airlie Beach comes into view, where you’re greeted by a no-filters-required backdrop. Airlie is the gateway to 74 island wonders, best explored by boat.
Before setting sail, drop into Capers on the Esplanade and indulge in the chilli mud crab.
Stay: Airlie Beach.
DAYs 7-10: THE WHITSUNDAYS
There are plenty of options available for exploring the Whitsundays by boat, from sunset cruises to chartered day-trips and bareboat sailing with your A-list crew. But a bareboat sailing adventure is a feeling of freedom at its finest.
Everyone’s heard of this beach, and it would be a shame to miss it on your travels, but Nara Inlet is a must for one of your overnight anchorages, a protected cul-de-sac in this divine neighbourhood located at the southern end of Hook Island.
In Nara’s embrace you can swim, kayak, paddle board and fish to your heart’s content. Then, feast on freshly-shucked oysters and explore the cave paintings at the Ngaro Cultural Site, which date back around 9000 years!
It’s a must-do Indigenous experience and a taste of what’s ahead. Time to take the leap from reef to rainforest.
PS. More tips for how to have the perfect Whitsundays sailing holiday are here.
DAY 11: AIRLIE BEACH TO TULLY (480kms)
Today you’ll cruise past cane fields and catch glimpses of that irresistible aqua ocean on your way north to Tully. (Allow five and half hours.)
When you arrive in Tully you enter a gateway to experience the culture of the rainforest Aboriginal people. The Davidson Valley is home to the Jabanbarra Jirrbal people, the custodians here, who share their stories about how the mountains, animals and rivers came to be.
Ingan Tours offer the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jabanbarra Jirrbal ancestors along traditional trading routes, learn the art of basket weaving, face painting, throwing a boomerang and catching fish.
Stay: Tully. (If you’ve got a few more days to spare, you might want to check out nearby Mission Beach.)
DAY 12: TULLY TO MENA CREEK (55kms)
No way, José! A splash of Spanish flare is in store for today’s adventure. Take your time setting off; Mena Creek is a short 45-minute drive from Tully.
Pulling into Paronella Park is like walking into a Fern Gully fantasy.
Built by Spanish immigrant Jose Paronella in 1929, the park consists of a castle surrounded by tropical gardens, tunnels, bridges, boathouses and waterfalls, and tours are run throughout the day so you can learn more about this wonderland.
It took six years for José to complete his vision, with the spirit of the rainforest and surrounding falls providing his inspiration. Now, you can enjoy the fruits of his labour – and that of the current owners who revived the park from its neglected, overgrown state – by enjoying a picnic by the hydro-electric waterfall or losing yourself amongst the towering trees.
Paronella Park is the stuff of dreams and a story of a paradise found, lost and rebuilt. It’s defied the odds, battled through cyclones and fires, and now stands intertwined and at one with nature.
DAY 13: INNISFAIL TO UNDARA (230kms)
Mother Nature’s legacy looms large at the next destination where you’ll discover the ancient and alluring Undara Lava Tubes.
Head west along the Palmerston Highway – it’s a scenic three-hour drive, meandering through the rainforest and the Atherton Tablelands where you’ll pass tea plantations and dairy farms. Follow the waterfall circuit past Ravenshoe and the Innot Hot Springs. Mount Surprise is an apt name for our final destination where the world’s oldest lava tube system stands as a silent sentinel to nature’s glory.
Almost 200 thousand years ago, lava poured out of the Undara volcano and flowed down ancient river beds, travelling a distance of 164km and left behind the Undara Lava Tubes.
Taking a stroll through this site makes you question your significance. It’s a wow moment that needs to be experienced to be understood.
Stay: Undara Experience.
DAY 14: UNDARA TO CAIRNS (260kms)
With almost 2500kms under the hood, spanning beaches, cityscapes, islands and outback, you’ll arrive today where the rainforest meets the reef.
Cruise into Cairns and you’ve conquered this mega road trip.