Easy driving holidays in Australia

Road trips are great fun. We love these short breaks from Jetstar ports around the country.

View of a mountain through a windshield.
  • Lee Atkinson
  • July 2015

NSW Central Coast: Port to port

Distance from Newcastle: 55km

Length of drive: 250km

Start at the twin towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest on the northern shore of Port Stephens, around three hour’s drive north of Sydney or 45 minutes from Newcastle. There is a koala sanctuary here and you’ll often spot koalas around the village streets, as well as a resident pod of dolphins. Take the coast road to Mungo Brush deep inside Myall Lakes National Park. This shady, lakeside clearing beneath the tea trees is a great place to unpack a picnic.

The road rejoins the highway near Bulahdelah but don’t stay on it for long – the Lakes Way to Forster winds through Bulahdelah State Forest and along the shores of Myall Lake. Turn off to Seal Rocks, a sleepy fishing village where fisherfolk sell shells outside their boathouses and the pace of life is about as relaxed as you can get. Soak in some sea-forever views on the walk up to Sugarloaf Lighthouse on the point overlooking the beach.

Take the ‘back way’ to Port Macquarie along the coast road from Kew through Laurieton. In Laurieton, the lookout atop North Brother Mountain has good views over the Camden Haven and its expanse of waterways and beaches. Follow the riverwalk along the Camden Haven River and watch the pelicans swoop down to steal fishy scraps from the fishos cleaning their catches. From Laurieton the coast road cuts its way through heath-covered sand dunes, over headlands with views along endless stretches of beach, and skirts the shores of Lake Cathie (pronounced ‘cat-eye’). In spring, the bush beside the road is carpeted with Christmas bells and flannel flowers. Time your drive into Port Macquarie to coincide with the 3pm feeding at the Koala Hospital in the grounds of Roto House in Lord Street and stretch your legs along the boardwalk at nearby Sea Acres, the second largest coastal rainforest reserve in NSW.

For more information on this driving route, go to visitnsw.com/destinations/north-coast opens in new window

NSW North Coast: Beyond Byron Bay

Distance from Ballina/Byron: 23km

Length of drive: 220km

It can be difficult dragging yourself away from Byron Bay’s glorious beaches, but the hills, valleys and rainforests beyond Byron town create an even more chilled-out world. Head north to Murwillumbah, which is surrounded by world-heritage rainforest wilderness parks on the rim of a vast, ancient volcano, and then turn south-west to hippy-trippy Nimbin. Getting lost on the maze of local roads that wind through valleys, in and out of pockets of rainforest, along ridge tops, and through sleepy villages is all part of the fun. The views are fabulous and there are plenty of roadside stalls selling fresh fruit, vegies and macadamias – which you’ll also find at weekend markets in Byron Bay, Nimbin, Bangalow and The Channon.

Back in the car it’s about a 30-minute drive south to Lismore, and another half hour or so to Ballina on the mouth of the Richmond River. Stop en route to play nine holes of golf in the rainforest at Teven Valley Golf Course, break for lunch and some shopping at Bangalow, or wind your way along the coast back towards Byron Bay.

For more information on this driving route, go to riversoflife.com.au opens in new window

NSW South Coast: Grand Pacific Drive

Distance from Sydney: 33km

Length of drive: 327km

Grand Pacific Drive is a cliff-hugging, breathtakingly scenic route that meanders along the coastline just south of Sydney. A highlight is the 665-metre-long cantilevered Sea Cliff Bridge that curves around the cliffs 50 metres out to sea. But it’s not just the amazing views that make this road trip so special; this stretch of coastline is packed with beautiful sights.

Explore Royal National Park (the world’s second oldest national park), stop for a swim at any number of surf beaches, eat fish and chips beside the sea, and visit Nan Tien Temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. Walk through lush rainforest to a beautiful waterfall at Minnamurra, take in the jaw-dropping views from the Illawarra Fly treetop canopy walk, watch the sea whoosh through a blowhole in the rocks at Kiama, and treat yourself to some amazing donuts at Berry Donut Van before a spot of retail therapy in the stores that line Berry’s main street.

It’s an easy day drive from Sydney, but make a weekend of it and take the long way back to the CBD by winding your way though forgotten valleys in the Southern Highlands, including Kangaroo Valley, one of the state’s prettiest. Take a short detour to Manning Lookout for dramatic views over the valley and drive over historic Hampden Bridge, the oldest suspension bridge in Australia. From the valley floor, the road twists up the mountain to Fitzroy Falls, where you can look out over the dramatic waterfall that tumbles 82 metres to the ground below.

For more information on this driving route, go to grandpacificdrive.com.au opens in new window

For more information on what to do and where to stay in and around Wollongong, visit visitwollongong.com.au opens in new window

VIC: Dandenong Ranges

Distance from Melbourne: 50km

Length of drive: 270km

Forget big concrete bananas, giant fibreglass pineapples and the big apple. The Dandenong Ranges are home to the tallest flowering plant on the planet, the mighty Eucalyptus regnans, or mountain ash. Whole forests of the towering tree, some more than 100 metres tall, shelter misty gullies of lush tree ferns and frame historic cool-climate gardens. To get there, take the M1 out of Melbourne towards Belgrave or Ferntree Gully.

Garden lovers will find plenty of reasons to linger at Olinda with its boutiques, antiques and the National Rhododendron Gardens. Nearby is the William Ricketts Sanctuary with its almost 100 kiln-fired clay sculptures of Aboriginal figures. Head up to the summit of Mt Dandenong to the lookout at SkyHigh Mount Dandenong, where you can have a picnic in the gardens or lunch at the restaurant and bistro with Melbourne spread out below you.

As you drive north towards Yarra Glen and Healesville on the Maroondah Highway, you’ll travel across the vine-clad hills that lead into the famous Yarra Valley wine region. There’s a range of great cellar doors where you can try some of the area’s renowned wines. Don’t miss the TarraWarra Museum of Art, currently showing the exhibition The Triumph of Modernism, and Healesville Sanctuary, where you can watch birds of prey in full flight.

The Black Spur between Healesville and Narbethong is a narrow 10km section of the Maroondah Highway that winds its way through lush green forests. From Marysville, take Lady Talbot Forest Drive, a round trip of 46km, into the Yarra Ranges National Park where you’ll drive through old-growth rainforest before heading back to Melbourne.

For more information on this driving route, go to visitdandenongranges.com.au opens in new window

VIC: Great Alpine Road

Distance from Melbourne: 245km

Length of drive: 445km

The Great Alpine Road, stretching 300 or so kilometres from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale, is one the country’s best mountain drives. It begins in northern Victoria, not far from the Murray River, and takes you high into the ski fields of the Australian Alps before finally bringing you out, a stone’s throw from the coast, in east Gippsland.

As you climb up into the mountains from Bright, you’ll catch glimpses of the valley below, but, once you enter Alpine National Park, the road sits atop the ridge of the mountain for about 30km. This section of the drive has spectacular views on both sides of the road as you drive high above the snowline, winding amongst the skeletal snowgums through Hotham and Dinner Plain before descending towards Omeo and on to the coast.

Make a loop of it by circling back to Bright from Omeo via Falls Creek across the Bogong High Plains. It’s a glorious drive with sweeping views that skirt the edge of Rocky Valley Dam. Much of the trip is inside the boundaries of Alpine National Park and there are plenty of places to stop.

The Great Alpine Road is fully sealed and open all year, but the Bogong Alpine Way closes between Falls Creek and Omeo during winter (access to the ski resort from Bright and Mt Beauty remains open). Unless you’re keen on skiing, the best time to do this drive is in the warmer months or during April and early May.

Where to stay: There are over 100 individual chalets, apartments and lodges at Mount Hotham. To choose one that’s right for you, go to saltwaterproperties.com opens in new window

For more information on this driving route, go to victoriashighcountry.com.au opens in new window

QLD: Scenic Rim

Distance from Brisbane: 60km

Length of drive: 425km

Just one hour from Brisbane, half an hour from the Gold Coast, is a stunning world of mountains, rainforest and World Heritage-listed wilderness. Known as the Scenic Rim, it’s a chain of craggy mountains and high tablelands cut through with fertile valleys, and dotted with historic townships and magnificent rainforests.

First stop should be Tamborine Mountain, around an hour’s drive south of Brisbane. The air up here is cooler and the views from the plateau are fantastic, but the drive is steep, winding and narrow. Stop and explore the villages and rainforest walks, then keep following the main road west, through Beaudesert to Boonah, where you can do a loop to Warwick and back via Killarney. It will take around four or five hours – depending on how much you dawdle along the way at places like Kalbar, which is full of classic Queensland architecture, or Lake Moogerah with its extensive lakeside picnic areas. Highlights along the way include the views at Spicers Gap, grand architecture and historic houses in Warwick, and the 45-minute walk from the lookout at the top of Queen Mary Falls. Stop at Spring Creek Mountain Café just east of the falls afterwards for a slice of cake served with sublime views.

For more information on this driving route, go to visitscenicrim.com.au opens in new window

QLD: Legendary Pacific Drive

When driving along the NSW north coast from Sydney to Brisbane take the time to get off the highway and onto the back roads. There’s plenty to see including beautiful beaches, World Heritage-listed national parks and rainforest, fertile farmland, valleys and plenty of interesting villages and regional towns. Top spots to stop along the way include Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Yamba and Byron Bay (beaches and laid-back everything).

For more information on this driving route, go to pacificcoast.com.au opens in new window

Far North QLD: Great Tropical Way

Distance from Cairns: 2km

Length of drive: 325km

Captain Cook Highway, from Cairns to Port Douglas, hugs the coastline for most of its 67km. It lends stunning views of the rainforest which spill down the mountainside to meet the sea in a necklace of deserted white beaches.

Mossman Gorge is a beautiful boulder-strewn river gorge in dense rainforest, 20km north of Port Douglas – explore it on one of two Dreamtime Gorge Walks, run by Indigenous guides. Take a detour to where the rainforest meets the sea at Cape Tribulation in the Daintree rainforest, 64km north of Mossman. The road is sealed, but you’ll need to take the ferry across the Daintree River. Back in Mossman, cut across to the Mulligan Highway and head to Cooktown, which, unlike Port Douglas, still has a last frontier feel.

Circle back to Cairns via the Atherton Tablelands, where the rainforest gives way to fields of sugar cane, paddocks of macadamia and mango trees, and fruit-laden orchards. This is also coffee country – almost all of Australia’s coffee is grown in the Mareeba area and you can join a plantation tour at Skybury’s Australian Coffee Centre. Atherton is 33km south, and worth the detour to visit Hou Wang Temple, the only reminder of the flourishing Chinatown that was here during the nineteenth century gold rushes.

The final run back to Cairns snakes down the mountain in a series of tight, twisting switchback turns through World Heritage-listed rainforest, a fitting finale to one of Queensland’s best holiday road trips.

For more information on this driving route, go to cairns-greatbarrierreef.org.au opens in new window

Tasmania: The Wild Way

Distance from Hobart: 179km

Length of drive: 130km

The drive from Lake St Clair to Strahan is spectacular. The first 80km section winds through the Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. The steep quartzite mountains and plains trace the path of an ancient glacier. It seems as if a new jagged-edged mountain rises up around every curve.

The contrast when you reach the surreal landscape surrounding Queenstown is quite shocking. Alpine wilderness is transformed to a moonscape of treeless, eroded hills where the vegetation has been killed by almost a hundred years of tree felling, sulphurous pollution from smelters and bushfires. The steep drive down the mountain’s hairpin turns is quite exciting. It’s 37km on to Strahan beside the sea at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour.

For more information on this driving route, go to discovertasmania.com opens in new window

Tasmania: The Bass Coast

Distance from Launceston: 25km

Length of drive: 508km

Anywhere in Tasmania makes for a great driving holiday, but the northern coastline is an unsung treasure. From the beaches of the Bay of Fires, the main route across the top of the island travels through rainforest, wine producing areas around Piper Brook and the Tamar Valley, along the coastal Bass Highway past fishing villages such as Stanley to finally reach the wilderness of the west coast at the Edge of the World lookout. Best of all, Launceston is roughly in the middle, so you can split this drive in half if you are short of time: choosing whether to head east or west is the tricky bit.

For more information on this driving route, go to discovertasmania.com opens in new window

WA: The Pinnacles Desert

Distance from Perth: 192km

Length of drive: 4km

Australia’s most accessible desert is a two-hour drive north of Perth, inside Nambung National Park near Cervantes. Known as The Pinnacles Desert, thousands of huge limestone pillars rise out of a stark landscape of yellow sand. Some are jagged, sharp-edged columns, rising to a point; others squat and rounded like a gravestone; some are little more than triangular-shaped boulders emerging from the dunes. All of them are totally surreal. The towers were formed as seashells dissolved inside the dunes, which then eroded away leaving the crazy spikes that exist today. Unlike most desert crossings, you can drive through this desert in a normal 2WD car along the 4km Pinnacles Loop Drive.

For more information on this driving route, go to visitpinnaclescountry.com.au opens in new window

WA: Cape to Cape

Distance from Perth: 268km

Length of drive: 110km

If you love food and wine, or surfing, you’ll love this drive through Margaret River, an area of land jutting into the sea off the bottom corner of WA. It’s about three hours’ drive south-west of Perth, and is famous for its wine, but also has great surf breaks, beaches, forests and walking trails.

The town of Margaret River is more or less in the middle of Caves Road, a 110km scenic drive. The entire drive could be done in an hour or so, but split the drive into two days for time to explore. Highlights of the southern section include decorated caves, the Boranup Karri Forest, and Cape Leeuwin, the most south-westerly tip of Australia. The Caves Road loops north of Margaret River and hits the sea in Geographe Bay at Cape Naturaliste, cutting through the wine-producing area.

For more information on this driving route, go to margaretriver.com opens in new window

While you’re here: Next time you’re in Perth, be sure to visit Rottnest Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride away. It makes a great nature break thanks to white-sand beaches and bicycle-friendly pathways. It’s well worth staying overnight. For accommodation options, go to rottnestlodge.com.au opens in new window

Great Aussie road trips

Lee Atkinson is the author of Driving Holidays Around Australia ($39.95, Explore Australia). It includes 40 classic road trips – from weekend jaunts into the Blue Mountains near Sydney, and foodie wine country getaways, to something more extended in Australia’s outback. Each tour has maps, information on the best time to travel, itinerary options, attractions in towns, national parks, food and accommodation listings and a “kids’ spot” for family road trippers. Available from bookstores or explore.net.au opens in new window