Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, Byron Bay… the route along Australia’s east coast is the country’s most popular backpacker trail for plenty of good reasons.
The 1615 mile (2400 kilometer) route offers an almost endless supply of must-do Down Under experiences, from diving, sailing, koala cuddling, Australia Zoo, crocodiles, surfing, white water rafting, indigenous culture and more.
Whether you hop on and off public buses or DIY with a few mates in a campervan, here are 10 reasons why you should pack your bags and head there now.
One of Australia’s most popular backpacker destinations, Cairns isn’t just party central, it’s also the gateway to a host of incredible activities. They include diving on the Great Barrier Reef, day trips to Kuranda (a small bohemian village in the rainforest) and the Atherton Tablelands, home to waterfalls, swimming holes and lakes.
Take the Cairns Skyrail, where you’ll glide over the rainforest in a gondola. You can combine this with the Kuranda Scenic Railway, known as one of the best train journeys in the world. It travels between Kuranda and Cairns taking you past the stunning Barron Gorge National Park, through rock tunnels and close to waterfalls.
Cairns is also home to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, where you can learn about indigenous culture including the Dreamtime (the Aboriginal story of creation), traditional dancing and how to play the didgeridoo.
2. Mission Beach
An hour south of Cairns, this beautiful retreat is a great spot to recharge after partying and exploring in Cairns. But you can also get your adrenaline fix here by going skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef with a beach landing to boot.
If you’d rather stay on the ground, the area is also a jumping off point for white water rafting on the Tully River. The river is Australia’s most famous rafting adventure offering Grade 4 to 5 rapids.
3. Magnetic Island
An island off Townsville, “Maggie”, as it’s known by the locals, offers 23 pristine beaches and bays, 15.5 miles (25km) of hiking trails and a vibrant backpacking scene.
The most popular trail is the Forts Walk; the best place to see northern Australia’s biggest population of koalas in the wild. Maggie was an important defensive post during WWII, so the route also has wartime remnants like a fort to explore.
Other great places to visit are Picnic Bay, Horseshoe Bay, Nelly Bay and Arcadia. One of the best ways to see the island is by renting a moke – a mini car with no roof. If you really want to stand out, rent one in hot pink.
4. The Whitsundays
Almost everyone has seen those pictures – that remarkable heart-shaped reef and insanely perfect island with pure white sand and crystal clear waters. That is the Whitsundays in the Great Barrier Reef, a paradise and a must-see on any east coast trip.
The Whitsundays are made up of 74 islands and are accessible from Airlie Beach; a beach side town also offering a fairly wild night life. The most famous spot is arguably Whitehaven Beach, regularly named one of the world’s best beaches, and where the sand contains 98 per cent silica which gives it its blinding white color. This place is so special it’s illegal to remove the sand or coral.
You can take a day trip or multi-day cruises through the Whitsundays where you’ll dive or snorkel along the way. Another great way to see the area is with a scenic flight which will take you over the world famous Heart Reef.
5. Fraser Island
The world’s largest island made entirely of sand, and the only place on earth where rainforest grows on the stuff, Fraser Island is truly something unique.
This island is 75 miles (121km) of pure, beachy bliss and you can only get around by 4WD – there are no paved roads. Along with driving on the “beach highway”, Fraser’s delights include the Pinnacles Coloured Sands (a sacred place for the indigenous Butchulla women), Eli Creek which you can float down in tubes, and the famous Maheno Shipwreck.
There’s also Lake McKenzie, a freshwater lake with striking blue water; the Champagne Pools, a natural Jacuzzi at the top of the island; and the viewpoint of Indian Head. From there, you can spot turtles, sharks, dolphins, manta rays and, during the winter migration season, humpback whales. Fraser is also famous for its dingoes, which are often spotted roaming the beach highway and rainforest tracks.
6. The Sunshine Coast
The region is home to the swanky resort town of Noosa, which is worth a stop, offering gorgeous beaches, great hikes and fancy restaurants and cafes. You can also explore the tranquil waters of the Noosa Everglades by canoe, motorboat and kayak.
Don’t miss Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in nearby Beerwah. Taking the reins from her late dad, you can sometimes catch Bindi Irwin headlining the zoo’s croc shows at the “Crocoseum”.
It’s playfully known as “BrisVegas”, but you won’t find many neon lights or wedding chapels with fake Elvis’ here. Brisbane, my old hometown, is an increasingly cultured and cool city centered around a winding river.
Queensland’s capital has a growing food scene with cool bars, restaurants and cafes in spots like Eagle Street Pier and suburbs such as New Farm, West End and South Bank, the latter which is home to great museums, an urban beach and markets.
Head to Mount Coot-tha for its beautiful views and walking trails. You can also check out this pretty city from the river by jumping on the free CityHopper ferry.
Other great things to do include climbing Brisbane’s iconic Story Bridge, day trips to Moreton, Stradbroke or Bribie Islands, and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where you can grab a selfie with Australia’s most adorable marsupial.
8. The Gold Coast
About an hour south of Brisbane is the Gold Coast, home to glitzy Surfers Paradise, golden surf beaches, skyscrapers and theme parks. It can be a bit tacky but there’s no denying it’s a tonne of fun.
As the name suggests, Surfer’s Paradise is a great place to hit the surf, but it’s also a mecca for shopping and the place to get loose on a night out. Also worth exploring are the dining precincts of Main Beach and Broadbeach. The coast also offers four theme parks, Sea World, Movie World, Dreamworld and Wet n Wild.
If you can, get out of the centre and into Tamborine Mountain, Springbrook and Lamington national parks, where you can hike through the rainforest passing waterfalls, valleys and canyons along the way.
9. Byron Bay
If there’s a town that epitomises the Aussie beach lifestyle, it’s Byron Bay. This coastal town located in northern New South Wales is a party town, but you’ll also find cool, alternative vibes where you can sip chai, burn incense and become a yoga teacher (if you want).
Bryon is a great spot to learn how to surf or just amble along Cape Byron to the lighthouse – Australia’s most easterly point. From here, you can spot whales and dolphins in the water below.
From Byron, take a day trip to nearby Nimbin, Australia’s self-proclaimed cannabis capital. Even though it’s illegal, it’s no secret that the hippies there love to smoke a joint. Don’t be surprised if someone on the street offers you a “special” cookie.
Blessed with a stunning harbour and amazing beaches, Sydney is one of the most beautiful and famous cities in the world. Do the Sydney Bridge Climb, swim at famous Bondi Beach, visit the Opera House, stroll around Darling Harbour and Circular Quay, and check out Sydney Tower’s outdoor platform, the Skywalk, for 360-degree views.
Also don’t miss the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, famous for its dramatic scenery of steep cliffs, forests, waterfalls and beautiful villages.