Road trip planner: The Whitsundays to Cairns in 10 days
The 622km of coastline between the two is dripping with the jewels that make up Queensland’s crown.
From the world’s best beach and the second-most-irreplaceable natural environment in the world to a living organism that can be seen from space, there’s a whole lot of natural experiences to be had in this top-third of the state.
The best way to connect these two dots on the map is by car, using this road trip planner, through landscapes that can only be described as ‘the icing on Queensland’s cake’.
Pack your bags for this itinerary where the only essentials are sunscreen and swimmers to dive right in.
Day 1: Arrive into Hamilton Island
Your adventure begins on Australia’s biggest island resort playground, Hamilton Island. Flights from all major cities connect into Hamilton Island and will have you landing in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.
Check into accommodation at Reef View Hotel, for comfortable digs with views over the perfectly calm Pacific Ocean. This will be home for two nights, so feel free to unpack the kaftans and floppy hats because we guarantee they’ll be in high rotation for the next two days.
Spend the day getting acquainted with the four pools that are as coveted as the royal flush on this island. The Main Pool at Catseye Beach is literally a place where you can live in the lap of luxury, with its own swim-up bar.
Swapping two feet for four wheels, take out golf buggy hire to scoot around the island, which is a little too hilly for this holidaymakers liking. After all, you want to spend more time at the sunset bar than getting to it.
Point your four-seater in the direction of One Tree Hill – the sensational sunset spot on Hamilton Island, not the TV show – and toast the first of many sunsets over the reef on this ocean-hugging trip.
If you want to know how to maximise your time on the ground on Hamilton Island, you need to read this post.
Overnight: Reef View Hotel, Hamilton Island.
Day 2: Visit a beach with more gold medals around its neck than Michael Phelps
When you find yourself on a tropical island just a hop, skip and sail away from Australia’s most famous beach, what do you do? Spend the day at Whitehaven Beach of course!
First order of the day, a visit to Hamilton Island’s tour desk to secure spots on their five-hour sailing and swimming adventure to Whitehaven Beach, one of the world’s most acclaimed beaches, which has taken the title for the fourth year in a row in Tripadvisor’s 2017 Travellers’ Choice Awards.
Expect 7km of pristine, crescent-shaped beach with white silica sand, the kind you can use to polish your diamonds (or, slightly less glamorous, buff the rough bits on your feet).
Another fun fact for you – silica sand does not hold the heat, which means you won’t have to run like twinkle toes across piping hot sand even in summer here.
After throwing down a towel on this much-loved stretch of coastline, take a walk up to Hill Inlet, to see a mosaic of white and blue sand and water swirl below you, as if a watercolour artist painted this masterpiece on natural canvas for you to behold.
If you’re looking for more information on Australia’s best beach, check out this post.
Overnight: Reef View Hotel, Hamilton Island
Day 3: Drive due north to Bowen
Arriving at the Port of Airlie, you’ll be greeted with palm trees and Mt. Whitsundays, which seemingly rises out of nowhere, towering over Airlie’s main street. Hotels, apartments and luxury houses built into the side of the mountain are just one of the similarities between Airlie Beach and Portofino. Expensive street parking is the other, which is important to note when you pick up your wheels.
Depending on how you like to travel, we’d recommend hiring a camper van for the rest of this road trip to ensure you fall asleep and wake up with the best views of Queensland – see what we mean over here. One-way van hire can often be bagged for a bargain out of Airlie Beach when car companies need a vehicle returned to its starting point, so see if you can get lucky.
Swap the backpacker capital for the mango capital and drive 80km north to visit Bowen. Up here, their madness for mangoes is insatiable and The Big Mango joins the world’s fascination with big things in this list.
In town, you’ll find some seriously secluded beaches, the kind you only have to share with some 10,000 other people who base themselves in Bowen. What’s more, this sleepy coastal community hasn’t been built out by big hotel chains or motels so you can park your campervan right on the waterfront for the best sunrise and sunset views from the van.
Sunset at Horseshoe Bay is an absolute must. It’s Bowen’s most iconic beach, framed by granite outcrops, not to mention dinner and drinks are served a few steps away at the licensed Horseshoe Bay Cafe and Beach Bar.
If you didn’t opt for the campervan, settle into one of the cabins at Horseshoe Bay Resort, which are painted in colours as cute as the Three Ladies in San Francisco.
Overnight: Horseshoe Bay Resort, Bowen
Day 4: Bounce from Bowen to Townsville
From one laid-back coastal town to another, put 200km between Bowen and Townsville, for the next chapter of your island escape.
But first, coffee. La Sorelle is an Italian cafe that’s made quite a splash in the Bowen dining scene. It’s all florist out the front and cafe and workshop space out the back with green walls and cute succulents on the table. What Instagram feed dreams are made of up here.
Pack some of their homemade fudge as road trip snacks, with a local Bowen mango variety selling like hot cakes from their glass cabinet.
Two hours north, drive straight onto the Fantasea car ferry to swap the mainland for Magnetic Island. (The rate for standard vehicles includes the driver and up to four passengers.)
Granite boulders, eucalyptus forests and Australia’s most northern koala population are just the beginning on this Great Barrier Reef island. If you’re not in a 4WD, join Tropicanna Guided Adventure Company and their jeep tour of the island’s highlights. The beauty of taking a jeep is that you can go where 2WDs don’t dare tread, which opens up a whole world of secret bays and beaches.
Overnight: Peppers Blue on Blue, Magnetic Island
Day 5: Tick off these Magnetic Island wonders
Two days on Maggie is barely enough to scratch the surface of these things to do in postcode 4819.
To hit the ground running, make like its namesake and start the day at The Early Bird. Fuelled with the likes of Spanish-style baked eggs and breakfast bruschetta of basil pesto, pine nuts and Danish feta, served with smoked salmon, you’ll be ready to mount your stead for a horse riding experience you’ll never forget – bareback on Horseshoe Bay Beach.
This evening, take the last ferry off the island for the cheapest way to see the sunset from the water. The crossing promises an epic sunset behind the shadow of Castle Hill.
Arrive into town and make the most of Australia’s first flashpackers, Rambutan Resort, which is right on Townsville’s main drag, Flinders Street. If you’re in a van, they’ll even let you park it up undercover with full access to their facilities for a minimum fee.
Of course, if you have more time – don’t forget to check out how to explore Townsville in a weekend.
Overnight: Rambutan Resort
Day 6: From the sunniest place in Queensland to the wettest
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but even more so in Townsville, if you know where to go. Check out this blog before you leave the sunny city.
Today, discover one of the waterfall greats, Wallaman Falls. The drive from Townsville to Girringun National Park is one filled with sugar cane – and lots of it – until you start the ascent to Wallaman. To see why it’s such a great drive, you’ll need to read this post.
Arriving at the picnic area and car park for Wallaman Falls, the first thing you’ll hear is the pounding sound of water crashing onto rocks below. A constant cloud of waterfall mist reveals the full force of Queensland’s tallest single-drop waterfall.
If you’re lucky, you’ll even be able to spot the iconic rainbow that reflects through the falls, which is at its most vibrant in the early and late hours of the day.
Not surprisingly the best seat in the house to see the falls is from the bottom, so take The Djyinda (pronounced ‘Yin-da’) walk to the bottom of the gorge and base of the falls. Things get steep and slippery towards the end, so moderate levels of mountain-goat-age (our new category of hike) are required for this walk.
If you’ve opted for the campervan, why not pull up for the night here? Wallaman Falls camping area is adjacent to Stony Creek and promises the best views, angles and accessibility to these famous falls. Gas barbeques, picnic tables, shelter sheds, water and cold water showers also make this site like glamping in the national parks world.
If you didn’t opt for the camper, head coastal to Ingham which brings a taste of Little Italy to the tropics.
Overnight: Stony Creek Campground, Wallaman Falls
Day 7: Wallaman Falls to whitewater rafting
If you want to feel the fury of water pouring off a World Heritage-listed landscape, make your next stop Tully, Queensland’s (if not Australia’s) wettest town.
The town’s door stop is Tully Falls, a 300m waterfall which drops from the gorge above, giving the Tully River its rapids. Join Raging Thunder for an adventure down the grade 3 & 4 graded course.
For more information about the Wet Tropics, don’t miss this post.
We suggest you ascend up to Atherton Tablelands to spend the night. Yungaburra is the epicentre of the Tablelands and guarantees you can leave your car at home at night – and walk to your dining options.
Overnight: Curtain Fig Tree Motel
Day 8: Get to know the Atherton Tablelands
If you want to amplify the adventure, Atherton Tablelands is where you can do it. With its own circuit dedicated to waterfall chasing, spend the day in your swimmers and hiking boots (a fetching look, but seriously everyone does it up here) to explore the best falls this side of Wallaman. This itinerary has you covered with the best falls, all accessible in one day.
The trifecta of Ellinja, Zillie and Milla Milla are the easiest walks from the car park and closest together, but the real rewards for your hiking efforts are the longer drops like Nandroya Falls, which takes closer to an hour to find.
Be sure to stop in at The Curtain Tree Fig to see a strangle hold so tight on a tree, that the fig now the main attraction.
Overnight: Curtain Fig Tree Motel
Day 9: ABC aka Atherton – Babinda – Cairns
Waterfalls are no surprise up here – this happens to be the wettest part of Australia, and Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain, creates some epic run-off.
Josephine Falls is Queensland’s best natural waterslide, and there’s no shortage of backpackers who’ll show you how to make a splash by sliding down the mossy granite into the water below. Safety first – only slide down on your bottom.
Babinda Boulders are as beautiful as they are spiritual – home to crystal-clear water, cascading over silvery volcanic rocks and a very spooky tale. Legend has it that an Indigenous woman haunts these very boulders, luring men into her midst.
A boardwalk to the aptly-named Devils Pool is the best vantage spot for viewing. You can swim around the picnic areas but this is one area where you’ll want to follow all the signs.
A little further north, arrive into tropical king and capital, Cairns. It’s the fifth most populous city in Queensland with a linear urban layout CBD, the kind that New York is so famous for.
Cairns is closer than it might first appear to New York, in that it embraces the ‘does not sleep’ mentality. In Cairn, if you’re looking for dinner at 9pm, you won’t be ushered away with a kitchen’s closed sign, but encouraged to take a seat.
Not been before? Don’t worry, we have everything you need to know covered with this guide for first-timers.
Overnight: Hilton Cairns
Day 10: A day on the reef
A trip to Cairns without seeing its main attraction, the Great Barrier Reef, is like missing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Pop down to the marina to book in for a day trip to the outer reef.
If you’re not sure which boat to choose, check out this blog post. If choosing from this list still seems to be a bit like playing spot the difference – base your decision on how long you’ve got and when in doubt, go for a comprehensive day trip like Reef Magic Cruises or Sunlover Reef Cruises who station themselves at an outer reef pontoon and offer a little bit of everything – kind of like a multi-tool of the reef world.
Or, if the budget has got the better of you on this trip by now, don’t dismiss these (almost) free things to do.
Where to from here?
If your annual leave isn’t calling you home, why not extend your trip with:
- These day trips from Cairns;
- A visit to the Undara Lava Tubes;
- The Pacific Coast Way from Cairns to Brisbane; or
- The ultimate bucket list adventure – Cairns to the ‘Tip’.