From Port Douglas to Cairns, Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay, and Brisbane to Gold Coast, I quickly discovered that the state of Queensland, Australia has some of the MOST amazing beaches, reefs, and national parks in the whole country. Located on the northeastern side of Australia, Queensland is known as “The Sunshine State” – apparently the state receives over 300 days of sunshine per year, and an average of 8 to 9 hours of sunshine every day! With the sunny weather, beautiful beaches, and laid back vibe, Queensland really reminded me of all the great things I love about California back home.
Queensland is around 2 1/2 times the size of Texas, boasts the fastest growing economy in all of Australia, and has the lowest cost of living in comparison with the other Australian states. The state is most known for The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches over 1,600 miles from the Whitsunday Islands in the south, up past Port Douglas in the north. In addition, Gold Coast in Queensland is one of the most popular surfing destinations in the whole country.
To start, James and I flew into Cairns and then traveled up to Port Douglas to meet up with our friends from the U.S. for scuba diving. We then ventured down from Cairns to Brisbane in a fun campervan adventure! From Brisbane, James jetted off to South Africa for his new editing job, and I continued onward, solo, south through the Gold Coast down to Byron Bay. So, in summary, we really covered a LOT of ground in Queensland, and I quickly fell in love with each new city I came upon.
The following is a summary of the cities we visited in the wonderful state of Queensland, Australia, and the activities you might want to partake in if you happen to visit sometime in the future.
I fell in love with Port Douglas back in 2010 when my friend Julie and I made an unscheduled stop in the quaint little town for scuba diving. We had originally planned to visit Cairns to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but found out from other travelers that Port Douglas had a more chill, small-town vibe, so it was better suited for our interests. This time around, both James and I and our friends Marty and Ann did research on Cairns vs Port Douglas for diving, and Port Douglas definitely won out! Not only is the town more personable and laid back, but the dive boats that depart from the town go further out to the outer and most northern areas of the Great Barrier Reef than in Cairns. [To see a video we took of one day of diving out in the reefs, click here.]
Port Douglas is a great launching spot for diving and snorkeling the reefs, but is also close to the amazing Daintree Rainforest, Atherton Tablelands, and Cape Tribulation. It is also home to the pristine 4 Mile Beach, where the four of us spent a lovely afternoon during one of the six days we stayed in Port Douglas. The city is also one of the more expensive places to visit, and is known as “a holiday destination of the rich and famous.”
[If you’d like to see photos from Port Douglas, click here.]
Cairns is the fifth largest city in Queensland, and is most popular with tourists who want to dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. The Esplanade is a popular palm-tree lined street/area that runs along the coastline in Cairns, and is home to a beautiful beach-like lagoon (which is pretty much like a public pool, but more fancy and beach-like), where visitors and locals spend their afternoons basking out in the sun while children play nearby in the water.
The first day we arrived in Cairns, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and nap near the lagoon and just soaked it all in. James and I were also lucky, as there was a festival going on the weekend we were in town and there were many events going on down at the Esplanade. Both nights, we packed a picnic and wine dinner, brought along a blanket, and settled ourselves out in the sea of other picnicking couples and families… the first night we watched a movie on a huge outdoor screen, and the next night we enjoyed a series of live concerts. Since we normally attend many picnic-concert type of outings in the summer back in Los Angeles, it was nice to experience a little piece of home together for the first time in awhile.
[To see our photos from Cairns, click here.]
Airlie Beach / Whitsunday Islands
I also fell in love with Airlie Beach back in 2010 when my friend Julie and I passed through the city on our way to a cruise around the Whitsunday Islands. This gateway to the Whitsundays is a great base for island hopping and a haven for yachties and backpackers alike… and the nightlife is pretty hoppin’ in town! If you stay at a hotel or B&B up on the hill overlooking the marina, it is a perfect and peaceful place to relax and enjoy some breathtaking ocean views. Nearby Hamilton Island is also a top destination from this town, but be prepared to spend BIG MONEY, as it is definitely a more luxurious and expensive place to stay.
During our four-day campervan adventure down the coast, James and I stopped at Airlie Beach overnight. Airlie Beach is another city that has a typical Queensland manmade lagoon… which is an element I have found to be extremely appealing in Australia. I LOVE water in general, so the fact that many cities across Queensland, including Airlie Beach, have a beautiful manmade “lagoon” to swim in and relax around is fantastic!
[To see photos from our campervan adventure from Cairns down to Brisbane, click here.]
Hervey Bay / Fraser Island
Hervey Bay is one of the three towns that are launching spots for the boats going out to Fraser Island. Fraser is a TOP destination in Australia in general, as it is the largest sand Island in the world! People flock from all over Australia and the world to take up thrilling four-wheel drive adventures through the sand dunes, as well as enjoy a little camping, hiking, and relaxing beside one of the world’s most beautiful blue freshwater lakes: Lake Mackenzie.
I would highly recommend visiting Fraser Island, even though we unfortunately missed out on the opportunity to go on a four-wheel adventure. It IS quite pricey, though, that’s for sure! An all-day four-wheel drive tour from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island will set you back around $180-300 per person!
Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, is one of the fastest growing cities in Australia and makes an excellent base for touring both the colorful Gold Coast to the south, and the sophisticated, stylish Sunshine Coast to the north. I was not expecting much out of Brisbane, as it isn’t typically a city that many tourists visit, and it usually is NOT listed on the top places to visit in Australia… but I LOVED it! I think what I liked most was the fact it was a pretty large city, boasting towering buildings, artsy bridges everywhere, and lots of things to do, but ALSO that is surrounded by a beautiful river and lots of parks and pretty places to relax outside… including yet another typical Queensland lagoon, awesome!
The day we arrived in Brisbane, James and I visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where we enjoyed petting Kangaroos, watching Tasmanian devils at feeding time, and holding a Koala. [Click here to see a video of the koalas!] In addition, I once again found myself having lucky timing, as that weekend I was there was the start of the Brisbane festival! At this point in my travels, I was riding solo (as James had already ventured out to South Africa for work) and spent a fun night out with hostel friends to the festival where we all had drinks, listened to live music, and watched the cool light show out on the river.
In addition, during the three days I was in Brisbane, I visited the Contemporary Art Museum (very enjoyable), walked throughout South Bank and the Botanical Gardens, visited Story Bridge, and shopped around at the Queen Street Mall. I also was pleased to catch up with an old friend, Esther, who I met on my 2006 Euro trip. We hadn’t seen each other in over SIX years, I got to meet her adorable little baby Jye, and we had a lovely time catching up over champagne and snacks at her lovely house outside of the city.
Overall, I really LOVED Brisbane, and would highly recommend it to others!
[To see our photos from Brisbane, click here.]
Gold Coast (Surfer’s Paradise and Burleigh Heads)
Everybody gushes about Gold Coast and how it’s a MUST for visiting Australia. I think I might have missed what all the hype was about, though? All the cities and towns in Gold Coast are known for beautiful beaches, great surfing conditions, and its big backpacker-party scene… but for me: I’m not a surfer, I’m past the age of finding party nights out with 23-year-old “meathead” type guys any fun, and at the time I was there it was winter… so it wasn’t really “beach-weather” warm. I think the problem for me was that I stayed in a shared room hostel in Surfer’s Paradise, and didn’t realize that town is mainly full of Australian men who just go there to get completely BLASTED drunk and try to hook up with girls. Oh yea, and there’s not much to do around town other than party and lay on the beach… which was too cold to lay on. *SIGH*
Fortunately, by the suggestion of my Brisbane friend, Esther, I ventured down to Burleigh Heads one of the days I was in Surfer’s Paradise, and had a very lovely hike up the Burleigh hill and experienced some spectacular views! It was a very lovely day outside, and I was happy to chat away with my new friend, Olvia, who I met in my hostel. It was really refreshing to be active and get out in nature, and really made me appreciate the coastal beauty of the Gold Coast. [To see a video I took of the amazing views at Burleigh Heads, click here.]
[To see photos from Surfer’s Paradise and Burleigh Heads, click here.]
Byron Bay [**is actually NOT in Queensland, but I’m putting it here anyway]
When I was staying in Surfer’s Paradise, SO MANY PEOPLE kept RAVING about Byron Bay, so I decided to check out of my hostel a day early and head down south an hour or two to see what all the fuss was about. And boy was I PLEASED I did! Byron Bay is actually NOT in the state of Queensland; it’s located in the far-northeastern corner of the state of New South Wales (same state that Sydney is located in), however I HAD TO LIST IT AS A PLACE TO VISIT here, as it the city was one of my favorites!
With a reputation for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, Byron Bay is a popular Australian destination for tourists from around the world… and the 3-4 hour hike up to the lighthouse and back down was the MAIN highlight for me! In all of my hiking adventures around Los Angeles and the whole world for that matter, I have never experienced so many GORGEOUS and inspiring coastal views as I did in Byron Bay. However, maybe I was influenced a bit by the fact I did the hike alone while listening to really chill music (which, overall, gave me a euphoric and empowering feeling to be on my own, doing amazing things, and feeling extremely grateful for being where I was at the moment). But whatever it was: Byron was AH-MAAAZING! [To see a video I took of the amazing Byron Bay views, click here.]
I also spent an afternoon in Byron paddling-paddling-paddling a kayak wayyyyy out into the ocean with a group whale-watching tour… but unfortunately after all that work (and the INSANE SORENESS that followed the next few days), we actually NEVER ended up seeing ANY whales! Well, nothing close-up at least.
[To see photos from Byron Bay, click here.]
Other cities in Queensland
Of course there is NEVER enough time to visit all the cities and places you’d like to when traveling… so it’s worth mentioning a few other places in Queensland that we/I would have LOVED to visit while we were there, but didn’t have the time or opportunity to do so:
The Sunshine Coast, a quieter alternative to the Gold Coast, begins around 60 miles north of Brisbane, and is home to some of the state’s best beaches, national parks, and many popular attractions including Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, Aussie World, and the Big Pineapple. Some popular places to visit within the Sunshine Coast include Montville (a quaint little village that is perfect for a couple’s escape), Coolum (visit Coolum beach and climb up Mount Coolum for breathtaking views), Noosa (small resort town with great surfer’s beach and close to beautiful rainforests including Cooloola National Park), and the beaches from Dicky Beach to the famous break at Snapper Rocks.
Townsville itself is somewhat small, but it’s surrounded by tropical rainforests and waterfalls and is right on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. It is also the launching point for Magnetic Island… a beautiful island that offers a range of water sports and activities. You can rent a yacht, snorkel, or take a sea kayaking tour to explore the crystal waters and marine life.
The state of Queensland is known for its coastal cities, but if you venture out to the west you will find yourself smack in the middle of the Australian Outback! Spring is the best time to visit, as the area explodes with tons of quirky events, including the Dunny Derby in Winton, the famous Birdsville Races, and the Mount Isa Rodeo. Mount Isa is also known for exploring mines and enjoying fishing and other outdoor recreational activities.
Overall, I really can’t say enough wonderful things about all of the places of Queensland (and Byron Bay) that we/I visited. I’m REALLY glad on this trip that I had the luxury to spend a bit more time to REALLY explore and soak it all in.
If you ever travel to Australia, don’t get “trapped” in the notion that you must only visit Sydney, Melbourne, and/or the Great Barrier Reef… I highly recommend spending some time exploring more of beautiful, lovely Queensland.
**Are there any other cities/places in Queensland that you think should be on this list? Please comment below!
If you’d like to see photos from Port Douglas, click here.
To see photos from Cairns, click here.
To see photos from our campervan adventure from Cairns down to Brisbane, click here.
Photos from Brisbane, click here.
Photos from Surfer’s Paradise and Burleigh Heads, click here.
Photos from Byron Bay, click here.