How long does it take to explore the East Coast of Australia

The better question is how long do you have? You can do the East Coast over the course of a lifetime, or, if done in smaller trips, can take as little as 2 weeks. How long your East Coast adventure takes is totally up to you, your budget and how long you spend savouring each moment and destination.

Depending on where you want to start and end you can adjust your itinerary and take as much time to explore as needed.

What’s on the East Coast?

Typically, the East Coast refers to anywhere and everywhere from Melbourne all the way up to Cairns, which covers 3,500km of roadways if you take the coastline, and 3,000km of roadways if you take the shortest route possible. Many travellers may opt to fly, drive or train in between destinations to cut down on time and explore their must-sees only. 

In this article, we will be covering the ‘upper half’ of the East Coast from Cairns down to Byron Bay, which covers almost 2,000km and the majority of Queensland and a tiny bit of New South Wales. We will cover some of the highlights, giving you the optimal amount of time in each location so you can plan accordingly. Keep in mind you can cut back on some of the locations in order to make the trip work for your timeframe. 

But really - how long do I need?

To help you plan your trip, we’ve mapped out the top towns to visit, giving you a general time frame to visit each. The minimum you will need is 17 days with a more reasonable number of days at around 25, giving you plenty of time to enjoy each stop to the fullest. This length can clearly be altered by your budget and timeline - we’ve made it flexible enough that gives you the wiggle room you might need!

You can book a 15-day tour from Cairns - Brisbane with our ready-made tour, complete with a budget option, or plan your own using the template below.


Where should I go?

Cairns

  • Recommended stay: 4 - 6 days
  • Known for: Great Barrier Reef, Atherton Tablelands, Daintree Rainforest, Kuranda Village, bungy jumping, snorkelling, scuba diving

Cairns is the jewel of Far North Queensland. It is often the beginning or end point of an East Coast Journey. It has a warm, tropical climate all year long where visitors can look forward to blooming flowers, swaying palm trees and the lure of the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is the main point of entry to the Great Barrier Reef, with most day and overnight tours departing from here. 

Another huge draw of the north is proximity to the Atherton Tablelands. The Tablelands are a mix of rainforest, wetlands and savanna and are really known for the wildlife population and its ‘Waterfall Circuit.’ There are several tours that visit the circuit, visiting sites such as Millaa Millaa Falls, Josephine Falls and Dinner Falls, all of which are known for their beauty and great swimming locations. Other highlights of the tablelands are Babinda Boulders and Lake Eacham as well as many daring lookout points, forested landscapes and other fun tourist attractions.

The Daintree Rainforest is also located close to Cairns and is a top location to visit in Far North Queensland. The Daintree is the largest continuous rainforest in Australia and is the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest in the entirety of the world! You can look forward to seeing king ferns, towering tree and elusive cassowaries as you take a step back in time! This ancient rainforest seems to swallow you whole as you venture into its heart, visiting its many stunning attractions. The Daintree Rainforest is also where the rainforest meets the reef as the water’s edge meets the forest floor, giving you a chance to enjoy two places at once.

Visitors to Far North Queensland may also opt to visit or stay in Port Douglas, which is about 70km or a 1 hour drive north. There are also several tours that depart from Port Douglas for the Great Barrier Reef, which will visit sites located further north than those visited by Cairns’ tours.

During the rest of your trip, you can stay in Cairns and enjoy everything it has to offer. Cairns has the unique feel of a small town meets big city, with everything you’ll need, contained in a home-town feeling. With markets to malls to restaurants and shops, Cairns has it all. Cairns also features a huge waterfront lagoon, where afternoons have been known to slip by under the warm tropical sun. If you wanted to see all of the main attractions outside of Cairns (Great Barrier Reef, Tablelands and Rainforest) we would suggest staying for at least 5 days and 4 nights. This gives you a chance to do 3 day trips and have a cushion day on either day to relax and enjoy the city. If you want to join overnight trips (which you can for all of these attractions) you can stretch your trip much further!

Great Barrier Reef Tours

Overnight trips:

Day tours:

Atherton Tablelands Tours

Day tours: 

Daintree Rainforest Tours

Overnight trips:

Day tours:

Where to stay in Cairns


Airlie Beach

  • Recommended stay: 4 - 6 days
  • Known for: Whitsunday Islands, Hamilton Island, Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet Lookout, snorkelling, scuba diving, skydiving

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsundays. The Whitsunday Islands are a chain of 74 islands that lie within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and are known for their awesome snorkelling locations, superb sailing conditions and the unforgettable, ever-stunning Whitehaven Beach. People come here from all over the world to experience the island lifestyle offered in the Whitsundays, often basing their time out of the small seaside town of Airlie Beach. 

Due to the protection of the islands, the Whitsundays offer sheltered bays and coves that offer great places to snorkel. Without too much interference of waves, currents or open ocean, the reefs here have the chance to thrive, as do the people who visit it! You can leisurely float on the top of the water as the world below goes about its daily life, enjoying the many colourful fish and unique coral formations found at each reef site. 

First time scuba divers are often spotted in the waters around the Whitsunday Islands, enjoying their chance to scuba dive in an awesome environment for the first time. There are several day tours and overnight tours that offer this fun activity, meaning you can have the whole Whitsundays experience with this fun added bonus! But don’t worry - certified divers will also have plenty to look forward to on these tours, too! The diverse reefs offer plenty of places to explore, even for the most advanced diver - each reef offers something new to its visitors, so you’ll enjoy each and every time with a renewed sense of excitement.

While within the Whitsundays, the number one thing to do is to visit the famous Whitehaven Beach. It is known as one of the best beaches in the world and with good reason! It has ultra fine sands, made up of 98% silica (basically, ground up quartz), and has 7km of unbroken shoreline, along with a tropical backdrop, clear blue waters and an unbeatable atmosphere unseen anywhere else in Australia. The beach is located on Whitsunday Island and is only accessible by plane or boat, and is visited by most tours in the Whitsunday Islands. It is the perfect complement to any boat tour, where you can hop off, enjoy dry land and laze on the famous cool sands of this even more famous beach. A huge added bonus is the accessibility to Hill Inlet Lookout, which is found just above Whitehaven Beach. The lookout point is one of the most photographed places in Australia and is the perfect place to grab some pictures of your own, taking in the breathtaking views. From the lookout platforms, you will get to witness the ever-changing swirling sands of Hill Inlet, which runs out onto Whitehaven Beach. The changing tides create a palette of blue, green, tan and white as the current paints a masterpiece that changes with every minute of the day!

If you decide to venture out beyond the islands, you can also join a tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, departing from Airlie Beach. These reefs are similar to the ones found off the shores of Cairns and different from the ones found around the Whitsunday Islands. While the Whitsundays offer ‘fringing reefs’ the Outer Reef offers more classic barrier reefs and atolls that host a different variety of fish and marine life. You can join day trips or overnight trips out to the reef, depending on what kind of time limit you have.

While in the Whitsundays, most will enjoy their land time from Airlie Beach, but there are several resort options out on the islands that are available to you. If you want to experience a more authentic island experience, you may choose to spend time on Hamilton Island, Hayman Island, Long Island or Daydream Island. 

While this is a great option for a few days or nights, keep in mind that the majority of tours departing for the Whitsundays will leave from Airlie Beach. 

If you want to enjoy the Whitsunday Islands during a tour, hitting up Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet Lookout and the fringing reefs, you can do so on a day trip or overnight trip ranging in 1 - 3 days. If you combine this with a trip to the Outer Reef and a couple of days in Airlie Beach to enjoy its other fun activities (such as swimming, skydiving, the Airlie Beach Lagoon, or just the town in general) you would probably want to stay in Airlie Beach for 6 days. If you cut out a tour or opt to just do day tours, you can cut your time back to 4 days if you’re on a time limit. The town also has a huge variety of accommodations, catering to every budget, to make your stay everything you could want it to be! 

Whitsundays tours

Overnight trips:

Day tours:

Where to stay in Airlie Beach

Where to stay on the Whitsunday Islands

Keep in mind that if you stay on the Whitsunday Islands, you will need to get a passenger ferry back and forth. You can’t take a car or campervan along with you, but have to go as foot passengers only. Ferries fun on tight schedules, so you can’t stay on a resort island and catch a tour from Airlie in the same day, so some of your time will have to spend in Airlie Beach if you wish to explore the Whitsundays. 


Hervey Bay

  • Recommended stay: 1 - 2 days
  • Known for: Proximity to Fraser Island, whale season

Up next on your East Coast Holiday is Hervey Bay. Most visitors along the east coast stop into Hervey Bay, Rainbow Beach or Noosa as a stopping ground before visiting Fraser Island. Often times if you stop in one of the three places, you skip the other two, especially if you’re short on time. Visitors may opt to stay in Hervey Bay during whale season, as it is known as the whale watching capital of Australia. During the winter months, Hervey Bay is host to a huge population of humpback whales that migrate along the East Coast of Australia as they mate and raise their young. Hervey Bay is a resting point along their huge migration and often hosts these huge mammals in large numbers from July to November.

Where to stay

Tours to check out
Most tours departing from Hervey Bay are destined for Fraser Island, with the exception of a few that stay close to the mainland, including jet ski tours and whale watching tours. Tours departing for Fraser are offered as day tours and overnight tours, and guests will choose depending on style, timing and budget. Most travellers only stay in Hervey Bay for a night or two.


Fraser Island 

  • Recommended stay: 2 - 3 days
  • Known for: World’s largest sand island, dingoes, Lake McKenzie, Champagne Pools, 4WD, camping, sand dunes, Eli Creek

Fraser Island is the crown jewel of the Fraser Coast. It is a world-famous island that attracts all kinds of people to come tour, visit and enjoy the untouched beauty offered on K’gari (Fraser’s traditional name). While the island itself is famous for many things, its notoriety comes from its standing as the world’s largest sand island. It is completely formed by sand dunes, but is home to dozens of lakes and creeks and is even a towering and ancient rainforest (which grows right out of the sand). There is also the huge perk of four-wheel driving, which is the only way you’re able to get around on the island, making each and every moment of your tour here exciting, exhilarating and memorable.

You can look forward to seeing awesome sites on Fraser, making this a not-to-be-missed stop during an East Coast trip. With sites such as Lake McKenzie (a breathtakingly beautiful freshwater lake), Eli Creek (a huge, slow-moving creek), Indian Head (a stunning lookout point), Maheno Shipwreck (an old, rusted shipwreck on the shores of Fraser), Champagne Pools (naturally formed rock pools with a jacuzzi-like feel) and Seventy-five Mile Beach (a highway, beach and landing strip rolled into one) to look forward to, you’ll just wonder why you didn’t choose to stay longer!

Fraser Island is also home to a resident population of dingoes which can be spotted all over the island. Considered to be one of Australia’s icons, seeing a dingo in the wild should be at the top of your Australian bucket list. These wild dogs are cheeky and are often spotted sniffing around for food, so visitors have to be wary and vigilant when out and about during the day! If you are dingo safe, you have nothing to worry about and can look forward to enjoying the company of these animals from a safe distance. They are known to be quite the models, stopping long enough for visitors to grab unforgettable photos as they make their way along the beaches, looking for their next meal! 

Where to stay 
You can do a self-guided tour of the island, provided you have a 4WD vehicle or are renting one, and choose to camp or stay in resort accommodation. Alternatively, you can join a fully guided tour, with both camping and resort accommodation also offered. If you don’t want to stay on the island at all and choose to sleep on the mainland in Noosa, Hervey Bay or Rainbow Beach, you can choose to join a day tour, opting out of island accommodation all together! What you choose will be totally dependent on your travel style and what kind of adventure you’re up for.

Tours to check out


Rainbow Beach

  • Recommended stay: 1 - 2 days
  • Known for: Proximity to Fraser Island, famous coloured sand cliffs

Rainbow Beach is a second stop-off point for Fraser Island. Visitors opt to stay here to check out the coloured sands before or after a Fraser Island tour, enjoying the small town for a night or two to rest and relax in the midst of their exploring. Rainbow Beach was named for its coloured sands, which hosts a huge variety of colour as they showcase the passage of time. The layers of sand represent the many years that the landscape was formed with colours dependent on the conditions under which they were formed. You can drive along the giant sand cliffs on the beach, or walk down to see them from the town centre. As with Hervey Bay, if visitors opt to stay in Rainbow Beach, they often don’t visit Hervey Bay or Noosa, cutting out the other two locations for time’s sake. 

Where to stay

Tours to check out
Most tours joined in Rainbow Beach are destined for Fraser Island, with the exception of several tours that stay on the mainland side. There are day tours and overnight tours for Fraser that vary in price, accommodation style and type of tour (guided or tag-along). Guests choose tours based on the length and price as well as the style, choosing from fully guided, self-drive, camping and resort accommodation.


Noosa

  • Recommended stay: 1 - 2 days
  • Known for: Proximity to Fraser Island, beaches, Noosa Everglades

Noosa is the final main launch point for Fraser Island. The majority of Fraser Island tours actually begin in Noosa, stopping at other points along the way to pick up new passengers (such as those in Rainbow Beach). Noosa itself in a beach town that is known for its surf beaches, good restaurants and fun atmosphere, where one could easily waste their time away! 

Noosa is a great place to stop for a few days to rest and relax on your journey, especially if you need some quality R&R. The many small shops, cafes and restaurants offer a welcome comfort in the middle of a huge journey, with no shortage of fun in between! Noosa is an outdoor enthusiast's dream with beach horseback riding, surf lessons and tours of the amazing Noosa Everglades. You can opt to stay here for a night on either side of your Fraser Island adventure, or amp it up and opt to stay a little longer enjoying the beach town. As with Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach, you will definitely want to stay a night or two on either side of your trip to the island.

Where to stay

Tours to check out


Brisbane 

  • Recommended stay: 3 - 4 days
  • Known for: CBD, South Bank, nightlife, restaurants, Moreton Island, Mt Coot-tha, Botanic Gardens

Brisbane is the capital of Queensland and the best place to stop and enjoy the city life during your East Coast journey. You can look forward to all the perks of big city life including every range and flavour of restaurant you could want, pumping nightlife, beautiful outdoor spaces, accessible public transit (believe us, this matters) and a beyond huge variety of places to stay, eat, visit, enjoy and take in. You could spend years touring this city and still not see it all, but we think you could get a good feel for it in a few days. If you’re budget conscious, then you may want to keep it to a minimum, as life in the city can get expensive if you’re not careful! Shows, museums and concerts all have hefty admissions, so if you’re looking to explore the finer things in life, your travel budget could take a hit. Without spending too much you can still enjoy the lifestyle of Brisbane, taking the time to just walk around and enjoy all the visually pleasing things the city has to offer including South Bank, the CBD and Botanical Gardens. If money isn’t an issue, or you have a bit of extra cash, you can really enjoy Brisbane to the fullest, spending your days and nights adventuring, taking it all in!

Where to stay

Tours to check out
You can do plenty during your time in Brisbane without joining any formal tour, just doing a self-guided thing as you go along. You’ll want to make sure to check out the CBD and South Bank, taking advantage of the water taxi that cruises along the Brisbane River for the best experience. If you do want to join a tour, you can opt to go to Moreton Island, which is another of Australia’s sand islands, where you snorkel at Tangalooma: a huge collection of sunken boats that make for a snorkeller’s playground.


Byron Bay

  • Recommended stay: 3 - 4 days
  • Known for: Beaches, Cape Byron Lighthouse, Sunday market, surfing

Last but not least on your East Coast adventure is Byron Bay. This beach town is famous worldwide for a number of reasons, but mainly for its cool laid back style and beach culture. Byron Bay is a travellers right of passage, and a huge hit in the backpacker community. Byron offers a huge variety of accommodation, as in recent years the town has tapped into an upscale market. You can spend a lot of time in Byron Bay doing nothing and you’ll still be enjoying every moment of every day. The town thrives off of the cool Aussie lifestyle, and you will find travellers from all over the globe here. This is a great place at the beginning or end of your journey to relax on the beach, go for a swim, work on your tan, or just enjoy the many quirky shops and stores scattered around Byron Bay. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be there for the famous Sunday market, which takes place on the first Sunday of every month and is host to a seemingly endless number of stalls and stands where you can buy unique local goods and clothing you’ll not find anywhere else in the world.

Where to stay

Tours to check out
The town of Byron Bay offers tours in an array of places, but mostly they are water-based. You’ll find a variety of surfing schools, bike hires, shuttles to Nimbin (a neighbouring town with an interesting attraction), kayak tours, river cruises and more.


What's next?

Now that you know where you’re going and for how long, let’s sort out the finer details. Firstly - every newcomer should keep in mind just how big Australia is. When looking at a map or gauging a road trip, it can be hard to really understand how far things are from each other. To give you some idea, we’ve mapped out from average travel times in between the main checkpoints.

Cairns - Airlie Beach 620km

  • Car: 7 hours 15 minutes
  • Plane: 1 hour (fly to Hamilton Island, get a ferry to Airlie Beach)
  • Train: 9 - 10 hours
  • Bus: 10 - 11 hours

Airlie Beach - Hervey Bay 863km

  • Car: 10 hours
  • Plane: 8 hours (no direct flight)
  • Train: 14.5 hours
  • Bus: 14 hours

Hervey Bay - Byron Bay 450km

  • Car: 5 hours
  • Plane: 8 hours (no direct flight)
  • Train: 10 hours (no direct train, have to use bus transfer)
  • Bus: 7.5 hours

The way you get from place to place will be dependent on your budget and travel style. The trip we’ve mapped above is best done by car, bus or train, as not all the smaller towns have airports or direct flights. You can easily fly in between major cities, but the smaller towns are harder to get to by plane. We think in order to capitalize on budget and convenience, bus passes, car rentals and campervans are your best option for exploring the coast. Land travel also gives you a bit more flexibility as you can take your time and go at your own pace. If you rent a vehicle, you have the ultimate flexibility, as you are your own driver, but a bus pass such as hop-on, hop-off or something even more flexible like a WHIMIT pass will also give you plenty of flexibility too (just without the responsibility of having to drive yourself anywhere - check out Greyhound and Premier buses).

You can easily complete our condensed East Coast highlight trip in 3 - 4 weeks or even less if you opt out of a few locations. If you are coming from abroad, you can fly in or out of Brisbane and in or out of Cairns on the other side, allowing yourself to cover the Northern part of the East Coast. Both cities have international airports, making it an easy itinerary.


If you have any questions about your upcoming trip or would like to book a tour in any of the above amazing locations, talk to our friendly travel staff who will be happy to help you out in all things East Coast!

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