16-day family road trip: Gold Coast to Cairns
Climb the outside of a skyscraper, snorkel with turtles, and hand-feed wild dolphins on this family-friendly adventure up the Queensland coast.
By Simon Webster
Explore the Queensland coast, from the Gold Coast all the way up to tropical Cape Tribulation, on an action-packed family adventure that your kids will remember for a lifetime.
What to expect
- Hand-feed wild dolphins on Moreton Island
- Cruise with humpback whales at Hervey Bay
- Spot crocodiles on the Daintree River
- Time: 16 days
- Distance: 2344 kilometres (1456 miles)
- Transport: car
- Nearest major city: Brisbane
- Price: $$$
Day 1: Gold Coast
Just down the road from Brisbane, the Gold Coast is one big holiday playground: 57 kilometres (35 miles) of pristine beaches, mostly just a few minutes’ walk from hotels, food, parks and all sorts of fun. It’s just 77 kilometres (48 miles) from the centre of Brisbane to the Gold Coast’s most famous neighbourhood, Surfers Paradise, so you’ll be there before you know it. Start your adventure with a SkyPoint Climb. After taking an elevator to floor 77 of the Q1 Building you’ll step outside and climb to the skyscraper’s summit for a 360-degree panorama that has to be the ultimate ‘welcome to Queensland’. After a bite to eat on the Q1 observation deck, jump onto two wheels with Beach Bikes and explore the Gold Coast’s beaches, shops, cafes, amusement rides and playgrounds via its beachside bike paths. Don’t forget your swimmers, so you can tackle the awesome inflatable assault course at Aquasplash. You'll sleep well in tonight’s accommodation, the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa.
Day 2: Gold Coast and Moreton Island
The kids might want to spend the whole morning learning to snorkel in the Marriott’s saltwater lagoon (complete with tropical fish), but there’s no time to linger, because today you’re whisking them off to one of the Gold Coast’s famous theme parks. Take your pick from Warner Bros Movie World (with action-packed rides and Hollywood street parades), Sea World (where you can meet polar bears and penguins), Wet ‘n’ Wild Gold Coast (with water rides including the zero-gravity Kamikaze), Dreamworld, and the neighbouring WhiteWater World (for lots of adrenaline-pumping action). Dry yourselves off or dust yourselves down and jump in the car for the 60-kilometre (37-mile), 45-minute drive north to Pinkenba, in Brisbane’s east. Here, you’ll jump aboard the 5pm passenger ferry that will spend an hour-and-a-quarter crossing Moreton Bay to Moreton Island, and Tangalooma Island Resort.
Day 3: Moreton Island
Almost entirely made up of national park, with surf beaches on one side and calm, clear water on the other, Moreton Island, 40 kilometres (25 miles) off Brisbane, has been described as nature’s theme park, with stunning snorkelling and diving, bushwalks, and even a mini desert to explore. After waking up in your beachside home at the Tangalooma Island Resort, you’ll head off on a Transparent Day Kayak Tour, in which you’ll explore the famous Tangalooma shipwrecks in see-through kayaks, which means you won’t miss any of the rainbow-coloured marine life below. After a casual lunch at the beach café, head for the dunes on a Moreton Island Desert Safari Tour, which will include some high-speed sand tobogganing. You can slow down your heart rate by handfeeding the bottlenose dolphins that arrive at the resort’s shores at sunset, before dinner at the Fire Sichuan restaurant.
Day 4: Moreton Island to Australia Zoo
Hop on the ferry, jump back in your car, and head north. It’s just 78 kilometres (48 miles), or about an hour, from the wharf to the remarkable Australia Zoo. Established by the late Steve Irwin, AKA the Crocodile Hunter, the zoo can be found near the country town of Beerwah, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and provides a home for more than 1200 animals from all over the world, from rhinos to red pandas. It’s a great place for the family to get to know some of Australia’s weird and wonderful wildlife, with opportunities to cuddle koalas, pat possums and hand-feed kangaroos, and then keep your distance as you watch someone else feed saltwater crocodiles! The kids can even be zookeepers for a day. There’s so much to do, but you’ll have plenty of time to do it as your accommodation, the Glass House Mountains Eco Lodge, is just a 10-minute drive away.
Day 5: Glass House Mountains
After an early morning wander around the eco lodge’s orchard, bushtucker track, and children’s seek-and-find creek trail, it’s time to get a broader view of the landscape. You won’t have to go far; just across the road is the 3.3-kilometre (two-mile) Tibrogargan walking circuit, a family-friendly, 90-minute bushwalk that passes through groves and forests around the base of Mount Tibrogargan and offers views of several of the remarkable Glass House Mountains. It’s just 28 kilometres (17 miles), or a half-hour drive, from here to the charming, laid-back town of Maleny, on the Blackall Range. Grab some picnic provisions and head for the Maleny Botanic Gardens & Bird World, where you shouldn’t be surprised if a parrot lands on your shoulder. Take the spectacular 40-minute drive via the pretty town of Montville for a photo op at the Big Pineapple (one of Australia’s quirky ‘big things’). Another 40-minute drive away is the iconic beach town of Noosa, and your accommodation, Sofitel Noosa Pacific Resort.
Day 6: Noosa
One of Australia’s most popular holiday towns, Noosa is a place where you can combine great food with shopping, swimming, national parks and fun family activities, all within walking distance of your accommodation. At the Sofitel you’re right in the heart of things, on Hastings Street, which just so happens to run along Main Beach, a beautiful stretch of sand with gently lapping waves and stunning, clear water. Hire a stand-up paddleboard and get out there, or let the kids show you how it’s done. It’s just a couple of minutes’ walk from the beach to countless shops and eateries. Try the Noosa Surf Club for lunch, then head off on an easy bushwalk in Noosa National Park, which conveniently begins right at the end of Main Beach. Keep an eye out for koalas in the gum trees. After dark, stroll along Hastings Street, enjoying the fairy lights, and treat the kids to some pizza at Zachary’s.
Day 7: Hervey Bay
After an early morning swim, say goodbye to Noosa Main Beach and hop in the car for the 184-kilometre (114-mile), two-and-a-half-hour drive to Hervey Bay. Of all the places in the world to go whale watching, this is perhaps the most famous, and for good reason. Each year, humpback whales take on an arduous annual migration from Antarctica to the warmer waters of the South Pacific, and back again, with newborn calves. And Hervey Bay is one of their favourite stopovers for some rest and relaxation. If you’re here between late July and November, you are in luck. On an afternoon cruise with Hervey Bay Whale Watch you’ll not only get incredibly close to whales, but you’ll be aboard a catamaran equipped with a hydrophone, so you can even hear them sing underwater. Soak up the sunset on your way back to Urangan Harbour, jump ashore, and take the five-minute walk to your accommodation, Akama Resort.
Day 8: Fraser Island
Get up early for your hotel pick-up. Today, you’re off to the world’s largest sand island on a 4WD day tour with Fraser Explorer Tours. After a 30-minute barge crossing across the Great Sandy Marine Park (keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and dugongs) you’ll land at Wanggoolba Creek to begin your Fraser Island adventure. You’ll walk among king ferns and ghost gums at Wanggoolba Creek, swim in impossibly beautiful water at Lake McKenzie, drive along a highway made of sand – Seventy Five Mile Beach – and jump aboard an optional extra: a scenic flight over the island, taking off and landing on the beach, and looking down on the rainforest, lakes, and breaching whales below. Along the way you’ll no doubt see some of the island’s famous wild dingoes, as well as float down Eli Creek, visit the dramatic, rusting Maheno Shipwreck, and check out the coloured sand formations of The Pinnacles, before heading back to Hervey Bay, exhausted but exhilarated.
Day 9: Hervey Bay to 1770
Today, you’re off to the Town of 1770. It’s a beautiful beachside settlement that was once touted as being the ‘next Noosa’ but never quite developed that much. It got its name from being the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in Queensland (yes, in 1770), and is less than three hours north of Hervey Bay, or 236 kilometres (147 miles), giving you plenty of time to soak up the serenity at Lagoons 1770 Resort & Spa. The neighbouring settlement of Agnes Water is home to the most northern surf break in Queensland (from here on up, the Great Barrier Reef blocks the waves) so make the most of it by taking a two-hour surf lesson with Lazy Lizard. Later, you’ll be exploring the local waterways in a rather unusual amphibious vessel that’s a shocking shade of pink. Join a fun afternoon cruise with 1770 LARC! Tours, and keep a lookout for sea eagles, turtles and dolphins – that’s if you can get the kids to stop marvelling at the fact that they are in a big pink boat with wheels.
Day 10: 1770 to Rockhampton
It’s a big change of scene today, from the laid-back beach vibe of 1770, to the elegant country town of Rockhampton. It will take you about three hours to drive the 232-kilometre (144-mile) route. Once you’ve checked in to your Quest apartment overlooking the Fitzroy River in the heart of Rocky, head to the Dreamtime Cultural Centre to get to know a bit more about Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. On a guided tour you’ll learn all about didgeridoo playing and boomerang throwing, as well as explore recreations of a Torres Strait Islander village and local sandstone caves. Then take a ride in a stagecoach and discover Rockhampton’s settler history at the Rockhampton Heritage Village before freshening up for a stroll through the town centre. You’ll admire colonial buildings and the Big Bulls statues (this is Australia’s beef capital, after all), before dinner while watching some live bull riding – yee-ha! – at the Great Western Hotel.
Day 11: Rockhampton to Airlie Beach
You’re going to delve deeper into Australia’s past this morning, with an exploration of the Capricorn Caves. Just 29 kilometres (18 miles), or half an hour, north of Rockhampton, you’ll descend into these spectacular limestone caves on a one-hour Cathedral Cave tour, on which you’ll discover some amazing acoustics and exit via a suspension bridge (very Indiana Jones). You could try to hit the road before the one-hour fossil tour, but you know how much kids love dinosaurs, so you may as well stay for that as well. It’s almost lunchtime now, so grab a bite to eat at the café, then hit the Bruce Highway for the 461-kilometre (286-mile), five-hour drive to Airlie Beach. You’ll feel suitably tropical by the time you check in to your accommodation, the Coral Sea Resort. Have a wander through the streets of this fun holiday town and grab a table overlooking the Coral Sea at Anchor Bar, which serves contemporary dishes and a lively vibe.
Day 12: Snorkelling the Whitsundays
Remember that snorkelling practice that the kids got back in the hotel pool on the Gold Coast? Today, it’s going to come in handy, as you’re going to snorkel in one of the most stunning locations in the world: the Whitsunday Islands. Head out with Ocean Rafting on a custom-built, high-speed, semi-rigid inflatable vessel (just to add to the excitement) and visit some of the Whitsundays’ best snorkelling spots, where you’ll swim with turtles and many of the countless amazing fish here on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll also call in on Whitehaven Beach, famous for having some of whitest sand in the world, and climb to Hill Inlet Lookout, for amazing views of Whitehaven and the islands beyond. You’ll be back in Airlie Beach in time to freshen up for dinner at the Coral Sea Resort’s Clipper Restaurant and Lounge.
Day 13: Airlie Beach to Townsville
Hit the road for 275-kilometre (171-mile), three-hour drive to Townsville, a formerly sleepy country town by the sea that has been reinventing itself of late, with funky Melbourne-like laneways and a thriving foodie scene. Grab lunch in one of the cafes in City Lane then head to the Museum of Tropical Queensland for everything from animatronic dinosaurs to an interactive rainforest exhibit. You could also check out the turtle hospital at the Reef HQ Aquarium, or do the 45-minute walk up Castle Hill. Choose the easier roadway or a steeper ‘goat track’. Either way, it’s well worth the effort: the 360-degree panorama, taking in the ocean, Magnetic Island, the town, sugarcane fields and mountains, is hard to beat. Then it’s off to GYO Japanese Tapas for dinner and a good night’s sleep at the Hotel Grand Chancellor.
Day 14: Townsville to Cairns
Have a wander among the palm trees along The Strand promenade, with a rockpool, water park and playground for the kids, before departing Townsville for the 347-kilometre (216-mile), four-hour drive to the holiday capital of Tropical North Queensland, Cairns. Check in to the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort, which not only happens to be in the heart of the city but offers a lagoon swimming pool from which the kids are going to be very hard to extract. Don’t let them tire themselves out too much; tonight you’re heading 20 minutes out of town to Tjapukai, an award-winning Aboriginal cultural centre, for a Night Fire experience involving a didgeridoo welcome from the Bama rainforest people, as well as face painting, Aboriginal dancing, a fire-lighting ceremony complete with a flying fireball, the chance to learn traditional language and make music, and a buffet dinner.
Day 15: Daintree Rainforest
Today you’re exploring the world’s oldest rainforest, one of the planet's great natural wonders: the Daintree. After a 105-kilometre (65-mile), 90-minute drive north you’ll arrive at the Daintree River, where you’ll hop aboard the Crocodile Express for a one-hour cruise in which you’ll see lots of large reptilian reasons not to go for a swim on this particular stretch of water. Then take the iconic vehicle ferry across the river and a short 10-kilometre (six-mile), 20-minute drive to the Daintree Discovery Centre for self-guided audio tours through the rainforest (on which you may see a cassowary) and a skywalk through the canopy. In the afternoon, call in for a home-made tropical ice-cream at the Daintree Ice Cream Co on the way to Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the reef, and check in to the Cape Trib Beach House Resort, where you can enjoy dinner before joining a nightwalk to see what comes alive in the rainforest after dark.
Day 16: Cape Tribulation to Cairns
Even if you’ve never been on a horse, get set to saddle up and explore the rainforest on a trusty steed, with Cape Trib Horse Rides. You’ll even canter along the sand and into the water at Myall Beach. In the afternoon, take a half-day tour with Ocean Safari to the Great Barrier Reef, in which you’re just a 25-minute boat ride from snorkelling on one of the wonders of the world. Full of fish and colourful coral, it’s going to be an incredible way to finish your Queensland adventure. After another night at the Cape Trib Beach House Resort, during which you’ll settle down by a nightly campfire and reminisce about your adventures, you’ll be taking the 142-kilometre (88-mile) three-hour trip back to Cairns Airport, and on to your next destination, wherever that may be.