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From Sydney to Cairns: a 14 day trip of cities, islands and reef

See the best of Australia on this 14 day trip up the east coast, from Sydney to Cairns via Fraser Island and the Whitsundays.

By Lee Atkinson

What to expect

  • Spend a night in the middle of Sydney Harbour
  • Explore the world's largest sand island
  • See the underwater coral gardens of the Great Barrier Reef

Fast facts

  • Time: 14 days
  • Distance: 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles)
  • Transport: plane, train, ferry and car
  • Nearest major city: Sydney
  • Price: $$$

Australia is a big place, but you can go a long way in just two weeks if you plan it right. In this 14 day guide we show you how to see the very best of the east coast, from Sydney all the way up to Cairns in the tropical north. Enjoy urban adventures, island escapes, amazing wildlife encounters, sunset sailing trips and spectacular underwater experiences along the way. It will be two weeks you'll never forget.

Day 1: See Sydney's best harbour views

The Rocks, Sydney, New South Wales

Hit the historic streets of the harbourside precinct The Rocks, where you'll see some of the oldest buildings in the country. Download the free Walking the Rocks app to uncover the history of places such as Cadman's Cottage, built in 1816, and Dawes Point Battery, the oldest remaining European structure in the country, built in 1791. Drop into the Museum of Sydney to learn how the city grew from its colonial beginnings to become the metropolis it is today. Take a walk across the Harbour Bridge, or climb the arches with BridgeClimb for an awesome view. Then catch the F3 Parramatta River ferry (from Circular Quay, wharf 5) to Cockatoo Island and spend the night in one of the heritage houses, holiday apartments or semi-permanent glamping sites. Sleeping on this island, in the very middle of Sydney Harbour, guarantees you'll wake up with a harbour view.

Day 2: Walk Sydney's clifftop trails

QT Bondi hotel, Bondi Beach Sydney, New South Wales

Lace up your walking shoes and step out on one of the world's greatest urban walking trails. Catch the 440 bus from Central Station to Bronte, then walk along the clifftops to Bondi Beach and beyond to Watsons Bay. There you can enjoy a waterside lunch of fish and chips at the Watsons Bay Hotel or at one of the two Doyles seafood restaurants (one is on the beach and one on the wharf). Catch the 380 bus or an Uber back to Bondi Beach and check into a room with a view at QT Bondi.

Day 3: Go wild in Manly

Manly Wharf, Sydney, New South Wales

The AUD$7 ferry ride across Sydney Harbour to Manly (from wharf 3, Circular Quay) is one of the best value scenic cruises around. Learn to surf on Manly Beach or, if you're game, dive with sharks at Manly SEA LIFE Sanctuary. Ride the 135 bus from Manly Wharf (or grab an Uber) up to North Head and take a ghost tour of the old Quarantine Station. Soak in the harbour views from your heritage accommodation at Q Station and enjoy a meal at the Boilerhouse Restaurant

Day 4: Discover Newcastle's urban edge

Merewether Ocean Baths, Newcastle, New South Wales

Catch the train from Sydney's Central Station to Newcastle, a laidback, beachy city two hours north of Sydney. From the train station, make your way on foot to the neighbourhood of Honeysuckle, which has a riverside strip of restaurants and hotels. Hire a bike from one of the swipe-and-ride bike stands (there's one outside the Maritime Centre) and pedal the five kilometre (three mile) bike path along the river and around the beaches. Cool off in one of the many ocean pools along the way – the art deco pavilions at Merewether Ocean Baths and Newcastle Ocean Baths are favourites with photographers. Explore the edgy art scene in the Renew Newcastle pop-up galleries in the city centre – the galleries change regularly as sites are earmarked for development but at any given time you'll find everything from book binders to fashion, jewellery, stickers and light installations. Then stay in one of the waterfront hotels such as Crowne Plaza Newcastle, and watch the tugboats come and go in the working harbour. 

Day 5: Bask in the Brisbane sun

Streets Beach, Brisbane, Queensland

Brisbane, an easy 80 minute flight from Newcastle or 90 minute flight from Sydney, is one of the country's sunniest cities so soak it up on a riverside walk, or from the top of the Story Bridge, 80 metres (87 yards) above the Brisbane River. For an extra adrenaline rush you can abseil down the bridge's anchor pier on the way back. Catch the free CityHopper ferry from the Holman Street Ferry Terminal beneath the bridge and cruise to South Bank and QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art). Then stroll though the South Bank Parklands and take a dip at Streets Beach, Australia's only inner city man-made beach. Come sundown, the West End pulses with bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets: enjoy a craft beer on Boundary Street at Archive Beer Boutique and Bistro or the Brisbane Brewing Co, then try some native Australian food at Tukka before heading to one of many live music spots like Max Watt's

Day 6: Feed wild dolphins on Tangalooma Island

Tangalooma Island, Brisbane, Queensland

It’s only a 75 minute catamaran ride from Brisbane across Moreton Bay to Tangalooma Island. The launch departs from the Holt Street Wharf in Pinkenba on the Brisbane River. If you're here in winter spend the day whale watching, sand tobogganing or quad biking. If the water is warm, snorkel the reef of shipwrecks near the resort, or simply laze on the beach. Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to feed the wild dolphins. Each evening the bottlenose dolphins, varying in numbers from five to 10, swim into the shallow well lit area near the resort jetty to be hand fed their favourite fish, under the watchful eye of resident rangers. It's an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal to these fascinating animals.  

Day 7: Hit the sand on Fraser Island

Lake Mackenzie, Fraser Island, Fraser Coast, Queensland

The world's largest sand island, World Heritage-listed Fraser Island is a beguiling mix of white sand beaches, dunes, rainforest and freshwater lakes. Ferries to the island depart from Hervey Bay, one of the best whale-watching spots in the world between August and the end of October. You can fly to Hervey Bay from Brisbane. Alternatively, guests booked to stay at Fraser Island's Kingfisher Bay Resort can jump on a shuttle that departs daily from Brisbane and will deliver you to Fraser Island in time for sunset cocktails at the hotel's Sunset Bar. Located on the hotel jetty, the bar offers guests the chance to watch the sun slip into the sea, something you can't see from many places on Australia's east coast.

Day 8: Swim in an invisible stream

Eli Creek, Fraser Island, Fraser Coast, Queensland

Explore Fraser Island by 4WD on a Kingfisher Bay eco tour, winding through lush rainforests, driving along beach highways and bumping along sandy tracks to special spots such as Lake McKenzie, with its picture-perfect azure waters and dazzling white sands. See a rusting shipwreck, towering sand blows and the island's famous coloured sands. Cool off drifting along with the current in Eli Creek, a freshwater rainforest stream with water so clear it's practically invisible.

Day 9: Cruise the Whitsundays

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Transfer back to Brisbane and fly north to the Whitsunday Coast. Airlie Beach is the place to stay – there are lodgings to suit all budgets and plenty of restaurants and nightlife to keep you entertained. Discovered by Captain Cook on Whit Sunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter) in 1770, the 74 Whitsunday Islands lie between the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef and offer a sailing paradise. Spend the afternoon cooling off in the free lagoon swimming pool in the waterfront park at Airlie Beach before enjoying a sunset cruise across the Whitsunday Passage.

Day 10: Escape to Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island, Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Getting to Hamilton Island is easy – it's just a one hour ferry ride from Airlie Beach with Cruise Whitsundays Transfer Service. But leaving Hamilton Island is much harder, because you'll want to stay and play a golf course on its own island, be pampered in a spa, join a jetski tour or follow one of the bushwalking trails. If you’ve only got one day, however, take a sailing tour to Whitehaven Beach, famous for having fine, white sand that's 98 per cent silica, and take a scenic flight over the instantly recognisable Heart Reef. You can organise both tours from your accommodation at the Reef View Hotel. Have dinner tonight at Coca Chu, a restaurant offering excellent South East Asian cuisine, after a drink at One Tree Hill, located on top of a hill with a scenic vantage point of the island and its surrounds.

Day 11: Chill out in tropical Cairns

Cairns Esplanade, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Jump aboard one of the direct flights from Hamilton Island to Cairns, the holiday hub of Queensland's tropical north. Spend the afternoon exploring the city centre on foot – don’t miss the latest travelling exhibition at the Cairns Regional Gallery – and stroll the Esplanade and enjoy a dip in the free swimming lagoon in the waterfront park, or join the locals strolling though the tropical wonderland of the Cairns Botanic Gardens, and if you're up for a good workout, follow the Red Arrow Walk up to the top of Mt Whitfield for great views of the city and Trinity Inlet below. Cool down afterwards with cold drink while being fanned by a sea breeze at the Pier Bar followed by dinner with a view at Salt House, or enjoy an exhilarating Night Fire cultural performance and dinner at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

Day 12: Explore the reef

Great Barrier Reef, near Cairns, Queensland

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The spectacular coral gardens of the outer reef are 90 minutes to two hours away by boat. There are lots of tours to choose from, to suit all budgets, for scuba divers (and those that want to learn), snorkellers, and those who prefer to see it from a semi-submarine or glass bottomed boat. Great Adventures have trips that include a visit to a pontoon on the outer reef and Green Island, Seastar visits the largest of coral cay in the area, Michaelmas Sand Cay, as well as Hastings Reef, and Wavedancer will take you to the famous Low Isles - one of the Great Barrier Reef's most spectacular coral cays - in a luxury sailing catamaran.

Day 13: Have a rainforest adventure

Mossman Gorge, Daintree Rainforest, Queensland

Hire a car – or join a tour from Cairns – and follow the winding but very scenic Captain Cook Highway north along the coast into the World Heritage-listed Daintree, the oldest rainforest in the world. Learn about the traditional uses of rainforest plants on a Dreamtime Walk with an Aboriginal guide in Mossman Gorge, where a clear river tumbles over boulders surrounded by palms and ferns. Then head further north to Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the sea on beautiful Cape Tribulation Beach.

Day 14: Enjoy sky-high views in the Cairns highlands

Views from Kuranda, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Finish your 14 day trip on a high note travelling high above the canopy on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a truly unique way to see the rainforest. It starts near Cairns (a Skyrail coach will pick you up there) and ends at the mountaintop village of Kuranda, famous for its craft markets and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, the largest butterfly aviary in the country. Head back to Cairns via the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a spectacular journey down the mountain on a historic railway line built in 1882. The thrill will stay with you long after you've boarded your evening flight back to Sydney.

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