A sun-drenched part of Queensland runs along the Coral Sea from Airlie Beach in the north to Hervey Bay in the south. Far-stretched fine-grained shores line the coast where foaming waters crash onto the beaches. Further out, islands can be seen, making the dream of a tropical paradise come true. Not least Whitehaven’s promising mix of pastel colours of turquoise and creamy white. An irresistible palate of sea and sand among toppy mountains covered in a frizzy greenery. Sailing ships are loaded with expectant tourists who can’t wait to wade into the water and to feel the fine-grained sand between their toes.
But there is more to discover than this Instagram-celebrity in the east. Southern Reef Islands is the name of a group of islands a little further south. Too many to count, and of varying size. Some inhabited, others no more than a few trees surrounded by razor sharp reefs. They offer hidden atolls that form impenetrable walls perfect for snorkelling and diving. The larger islands called Lady Musgrave, Lady Elliot and Heron are perfect havens for those who dare to depart from the well-walked tourist paths. Over here, you can escape the crowds that just like you are looking for crystal clear water. This is a taste of the Great Barrier Reef, where you will meet turtles, sea anemones, sea cucumbers and fish in all its forms.
The middle part of Queensland crosses the Tropic of Capricorn and marks the start of the tropics. Due to the favourable weather and the beautiful surroundings, this region is a given area to visit among backpackers. The Tropic of Capricorn runs in height with Rockhampton, an inconspicuous industrial town that is not worth any longer stay. But the city is close to the cave systems of Capricorn Caves and the beautiful Mount Archer National Park. A bit further south is Gladstone, another city that leaves some to be desired. But like several of the towns along the coast, it is a springboard to the magical islands.
Make another detour from the obvious destinations and visit the twin cities Agnes Water and Town of 1770. In these smaller towns, tourism has not yet taken over and the backpackers are few. In other words, this is perfect for those who are looking for some peace and quiet. When you feel the urge, you can learn the basics of surfing with one of Agnes’ surf schools. Furthest south in the area lies the big shot Fraser Island, which is a clear favourite. Visiting the world’s largest sand island is a highlight for many. The island invites you to adventure with its wild animals, high dunes and lush forests. When the daily tide turns into ebb, the beach becomes a highway for fore-wheel drive vehicles.
This part of Queensland is about sand, sea and sun. At the top is Airlie Beach (wotif.com/discover/australia/queensland/airlie-beach/airlie-beach-lagoon.d6283231). A small town that is barely visible on the map but is an obvious choice for backpackers. Expect to stumble upon more sun-baked tourists than authentic Australians along these streets. This is the base of the budget travellers, where every evening equals party, followed by lazy days at the lagoon. It is commercial, artificial and cliché. But Airlie has an ace up its sleeve, and it is Whitsunday Islands with Whitehaven Beach as its crown jewel. Whitsundays is probably the most iconic island group in Queensland. Embark on a sailing boat adventure and spend your time rocking over the extraordinary teal-coloured sea (wotif.com/things-to-do/sailing-day-trip-snorkelling-in-the-whitsundays.a335360.activity-details). Within the same area lies the natural heart-shaped reef Heart Reef. Climb aboard a seaplane to see the reef from above (wotif.com/things-to-do/whitsundays-great-barrier-reef-scenic-flight.a254838.activity-details). Day trips are based in Airlie.
Rockhampton is not a coastal city but located 40 km inland. The city lacks some beauty but is a good starting point as being close to the Capricorn Caves and Mount Archer National Park. A few kilometres south of the coastal town Yeppoon, boats depart to the Keppel Islands. The island group consists of 18 islands, of which Great Keppel Island is the largest. The beaches are white and there are good opportunities to snorkel from the beach and for trying paddle boarding. Heron Island is famous for its fantastic scuba diving. The reef that encircles the island is teaming with life. But you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, so make sure to have a generous budget. Half the island is occupied by Heron Island Resort, the only accommodation on the island. You can get here by ferry or sea plane from Gladstone.
Agnes Water is located just next to the twin town of Seventeen Seventy, also called Town of 1770. This was where Captain James Cook first stepped ashore in Queensland in 1770. Both towns are small (1770 no more than a village) and are places to unwind after a visit to high-tempo Airlie. In Agnes Water you can learn how to surf. The area is a gateway to the islands of the Southern Reef Islands. From 1770 you can take a ferry out to Lady Musgrave Island, a coral island where the reef is shallow, breaking the waves as they come in. Go on a daytrip to the island or stay longer on the campsites. To get to Lady Elliot Island you must go on a daytrip or take a plane. Half the island has been cleared to make space for the runway. The plants are sparse on the island, which at a first glance do not meet the criteria for a perfect tropical island. But it is the landscape beneath the surface that attracts visitors. The reef is connected to the island, so you can wade out to explore it.
The cultivation of sugar cane that extends northwards towards Cairns has long been an important source of income, ensuring the economic development of the region. The city Bundaberg has made good use of the asset and is practically built on sugar converted into dark rum. In addition to visiting the rum distillery, make a stop at the coast where you can see newly hatched turtles fight their way towards the sea.
Anyone who has heard of Queensland is familiar with Fraser Island. The gigantic sand island is perfect for a few days of adventure. Slide down the dunes, look for dingoes and drive along the beaches. Several companies drive out to the island from Hervey Bay, but you can also rent your own car.
Planning and preparation
There is a Visitor Information Centre in all cities. The region can be visited all year round, but summer is peak season. The area has a subtropical climate and is warm to hot all year round. The summer falls between December and February and is characterized by high temperatures and rainfall. Winter and autumn are the driest periods. There are plenty of accommodation in Airlie Beach (hotelscombined.com/Place/Airlie_Beach.htm) to Fraser Island (hotelscombined.com/Place/Fraser_Island.htm). For suggested activities, you can search on wotif’s website (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Airlie%20Beach).
Airlie Beach is located 866 km north of Hervey Bay. Driving this distance is an experience (wotif.com/Car-Hire) as there are many interesting places to stop at along the way. However, keep in mind that it takes a long time to drive, and it is easy to get tricked by looking at the map. If you prefer to take a bus between the cities, there are buses run by Greyhounds (greyhound.com.au). If you plan to travel a longer distance making many stops along the way, a discounted bus card is recommended. For example, you can buy a hop-on, hop-off card with Greyhounds that is valid between Cairns and Brisbane. The nearest major airports are in Cairns and Brisbane. You can travel by domestic flights to Mackay, Townsville, Rockhampton, Gladstone and Hervey Bay from several cities (wotif.com/Flights).
Start your journey in Airlie Beach, many a tourist’s favourite town in Australia’s north. Swim in the lagoon located just off the sea, surrounded by sprawling palm trees and green hills. Wade out to the deeper part and relax in the shade. If the spirit falls on, you can party all night on any of the well-visited backpacker bars. From Airlie you can easily get to Whitsunday Islands. There are lots of companies organising trips out to the island group (wotif.com/discover/australia/queensland/whitsunday-islands.d6053152). Several of them are specifically aimed at backpackers. You have time to see a lot during a daytrip, but if you have the opportunity, you can choose to stay a day at sea. The islands are perfect for snorkelling but beware of the Box Jellyfish that blights the waters. Wear a wetsuit when you swim and snorkel to avoid being stung.
Take the bus south and make a stop in Rockhampton. Do not stay long in the city centre, instead explore the nature. Make your way to the top of Mount Archer, 604 meters above sea level, either on foot or with the help of a car. Go on a guided tour of the cave systems of Capricorn Caves (wotif.com/things-to-do/guided-cathedral-cave-tour-of-the-capricorn-caves.a423159.activity-details). Crawl, climb and slither your way through tight spaces (wotif.com/things-to-do/capricorn-caves-adventure-caving.a484969.activity-details). Then head toward the peaceful towns Agnes Water and Town of 1770. If you have energy left, try surfing in Agnes Water. They have affordable surf schools and the waves are not so terrifying high which makes it easier if you are a beginner. Take a few lessons and then try your luck on your own.