What was the first thing you did when you were allowed to travel after COVID-19? For me, it was my favourite road trip, the 900 or so kilometres from Brisbane to Sydney.
While you can do this trip in 2 days (it is about 10 hours driving if you stick to the highway), I gave myself 5 days, as this was the first time I’d been out of the house in a while!
Read on to find out about 10 stops you should definitely consider if you are travelling between Brisbane and Sydney.
Growing up in Brisbane, a day trip down to the Gold Coast was a regular weekend activity. Just one hour away, you could zip down to one of the Gold Coast’s many beaches, have a swim, grab some lunch and be back in Brisbane for a mid-afternoon nap. And the best place to visit on the coast? Without a doubt, Burleigh Heads.
Burleigh Heads is the more chilled-out sibling of party-child Surfers Paradise. Think all of the beautiful beaches, but none of the all-night clubs, noise and sleaziness of Cavill Avenue.
Once you get there, stretch your legs with a walk on the coastal track around Burleigh Heads to Tallebudgera Creek. The walk gives great views of the surfers lining up near Burleigh Hill (a hugely popular afternoon picnic spot), and the view from Tumgun Lookout is even better.
After that walk, you'll probably be hungry, or at least need a coffee! I always visit Canteen Coffee for my flat white fix and am also a regular visitor to Paperbark Burleigh, Govindas (great value for money) and Justin Lane.
If you’re into your secret bars, on the lane behind Justin Lane you’ll find Lockwood Bar - if you look carefully enough! For booklovers, pop into the second-hand bookstore, Big B Books, which is near Canteen Coffee - I always find something good here.
If you’re planning on staying overnight at Burleigh Heads, I’d recommend Burleigh Beach Tower. Located right across from the beach, most of the self-contained apartments here have excellent ocean views back towards Surfers Paradise. You’re also just a hop, skip and a jump away from the recently renovated (and very Instagram-friendly) Burleigh Pavilion.
On a backpacker budget or looking to meet other travellers? Unfortunately, there aren’t any hostels in Burleigh Heads at this stage, so I would stay in Surfers Paradise at Budds Surfers Paradise. This is by far the best hostel on the Gold Coast, and it is only a 20-minute drive down to Burleigh from there.
Drive another hour down the Pacific Highway and you’ll hit Byron Bay. Byron is well-known as a backpacker mecca and a bolt-hole for Hollywood celebrities like Chris Hemsworth. I personally feel Byron has become a bit too popular for its own good. Getting into town now can take ages, with just 1 lane of traffic meaning that cars are often backed up a kilometre or two out. Parking is also a ridiculous $4 an hour anywhere in the area.
Nonetheless, there is still a certain hippie charm about Byron Bay, and I would never suggest you skip it. Where else can you go sea kayaking with dolphins, watch the sunrise from the eastern-most part of Australia (see below) or listen to the next John Butler busk their heart out?
Located a small way out of town is Wake Up Byron Bay. I stayed there last year and was really impressed by the setup. They organise lots of events for guests, including pizza nights, wine and cheese nights and morning yoga on the beach. They also have free bikes that you can use to cycle into town or there is a regular shuttle bus.
My cafe picks for Byron Bay are The Top Shop (great pastries too, perfect after a morning walk or run to Cape Byron Lighthouse) and Barefoot Brew Room. For the beer fans, Byron Bay is home to one of Australia’s most popular craft beers, Stone & Wood. Their huge taproom is located out of town in the Byron Arts & Industry Estate.
On my most recent road trip, I stayed in Mullumbimby, which is less than a 30-minute drive away. You’ll pass through some beautiful dairy country on the way, and get an idea of what Byron felt like a couple of decades ago. Other good options for a quieter overnight location include Lennox Head or Brunswick Heads.
Drive another one and half hours south and you’ll want to detour off the Pacific Highway to Yamba. This coastal town has a population of just 6,000 but that can triple during summer as flocks of Aussie families head here for sand, surf and beach times. If you are a surfer, you’re in the right place - there are apparently 16 surf spots over 10 different beaches in the area.
The odd thing about Yamba is that when you drive in, you might wonder where the beach is. The main town is actually at the base of a hill, which you have to drive up to access the beach on the other side. While up on the hill, pop by the Pacific Hotel for a beer and an incredible ocean view (the pub is on the far left in the photo below). Or grab some fish and chips down in town and sit at one of the park benches up top.
If you want to stay the night, there is only one hostel in town, the Yamba Backpacker Beach Resort (previously Yamba YHA, it left the YHA network in 2020). I stayed here a few years ago and while basic, it is in an excellent location and has a nice little rooftop area to chill on.
For more on Yamba, check out Backpacker Banter’s post.
Woolgoolga was my new favourite find of my most recent road trip. Located 100 kilometres south of Yamba, “Woopi”, as locals call it, was described to me as “Yamba minus 5 years”.
That sounds about right to me after spending a night there. When I woke up to go for my morning run, kangaroos were grazing just 50 metres from the centre of town on a vacant block. That is how quiet this place is!
In fact, only 3 years ago there wasn’t even a hostel here. Local boy Sam has fixed that, opening Woopi Backpackers in 2017. The hostel only has about 60 beds and has proved extremely popular with backpackers stopping in the area to complete their farm work for second and third-year visas. So popular in fact, that 32 people (at last count) have got a tattoo of the Woopi Backpackers logo.
When I stayed there (June 2020) the hostel was basically full and other than me, everyone was a long-termer. Despite this, the hostel manages to maintain a friendly atmosphere and is not cliquey like I’ve seen with many other hostels that have long-term guests. As I walked through the hostel, everyone said hi and it was easy to strike up conversations in the kitchen and common areas. The beds are almost like pods, complete with privacy curtains, a bedside lamp and a built-in spot for your phone and valuables, with power points.
While you’re in the area, go for a bit of waterfall hunting and check out Woolgoolga Creek Falls. From the Woolgoolga Creek picnic area, it is just under 2 kilometres walk to the falls. The walking track goes through subtropical rainforest and has a stretch of ghost gum eucalypt forest (see below) and includes several creek crossings, some of which can be made by swinging from hanging vines. The falls themselves are not that big but I loved the walk.
When driving through town, you may notice the imposing Guru Nanak Sikh Temple and nearby The First Sikh Temple Woolgoolga. Woolgoolga is apparently home to the earliest Indian community in Australia and about 15% of the town’s population speak Punjabi at home. There is a really interesting backstory to this - basically, during World War II, labour shortages meant that many Sikhs settled in the area to work on the banana plantations (previously there were restrictions due to Australia’s White Australia Policy). Afterwards, many of them stayed on and now, they are said to own about 90% of the banana farms in the area.
On previous road trips, I’ve often stayed in Coffs Harbour and to be fair, found the town a little boring. This time I decided to take my mum’s tip and visit Sawtell, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Start your morning with a visit to The Hilltop Store to grab a coffee, then wander along the beach towards Boambee Headland. Park yourself at one of the benches along the headland track and watch the surfers down at Boambee Beach do their thing.
If you’re wanting to sleepover in the area, the closest and best-rated hostel is the Coffs Harbour YHA, although there are probably some great properties on Airbnb.
Bellingen is pretty much smack-bang in the middle of a road trip between Brisbane and Sydney and has been a favourite spot of mine on the last few trips. Just a short detour from the Pacific Highway, Bellingen is a cute mountain town surrounded by bushland.
If you’re chasing waterfalls, you’re going to love this area. In fact, the drive from the Pacific Highway through Bellingen to Armidale is known as “Waterfall Way”. Nearby Dorrigo National Park is home to Tristania Falls, Crystal Shower Falls and Red Cedar Falls as well as the impressive Skywalk lookout at the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. Don’t miss it! Drive a bit further north and pass through Dorrigo to visit Dangar Falls, the most popular falls in the area.
In Bellingen itself, you’ll find numerous cafes and restaurants along the historic main street (my personal fave is the Gelato Bar). Bellingen is a magnet for creative and musical types, so there is a busy schedule of live music happening at the Federal Hotel and The Bellingen Brewery. Just fifty metres away is the Bellingen YHA, which despite being so close, is surprisingly quiet and relaxing. The main deck looks out towards the Bellinger River and you can see cows grazing in the pastures below.
Speaking of the Bellinger River, if you want to get on the river, book a canoe experience with Bellingen Canoe Adventures. They offer canoe hire, guided tours (including a sunset tour with champagne at the end) and can even drop you further up the river to canoe down, or let you canoe down the river and finish with a winery visit at Raleigh Winery.
The next place I stopped on my road trip was South West Rocks. My main reason for visiting was to wander around the ruins of Trial Bay Gaol.
Trial Bay Gaol was originally built back in 1886, to house the prisoners that were in the area to construct a breakwater to make Trial Bay a safe harbour. That project was abandoned in 1903 and soon after, the prison was closed. Fast forward to 1915 and with World War I, the prisoner was reopened as an internment camp for German men and other “enemy aliens”. After World War I, the gaol was closed once again, stripped of anything useful and left to deteriorate.
Nowadays, the site is heritage-listed and managed by NSW National Parks. The ruins are open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, with entry costing around $10. You’ll receive a map and some information for a self-guided tour, which only takes about 45 minutes to an hour. As I only arrived just after 4:00 pm, the staff kindly gave me a discounted entry and I was still able to zip around in 25 minutes. From the carpark you may also be lucky enough to catch sight of some migrating whales.
Want to go diving with sharks? Of course you do! South West Rocks is also home to the famous Fish Rock Cave, which is rated as one of Australia’s top five diving spots. Fish Rock Cave is the only true ocean cave dive in Australia and home to a completely unique ecosystem, the highlight of which is the resident Grey Nurse Sharks. Grey Nurse Sharks might look scary, but they are harmless (unless you do something really stupid). They are also critically endangered. For a good write-up on the diving experience, check out this blog post.
There are two diving centres that you can use to visit Fish Rock, South West Rocks Dive Centre and Fish Rock Dive Centre. South West Rocks Dive Centre also offers accommodation, including shared and private rooms.
You’re past the half-way mark now! Next stop, Port Macquarie. If you’re heading doing this road trip in reverse, Port Macquarie is a good resting spot for the second night, located about 4.5 hours from Sydney.
One of the many places named after the egotistical Lachlan Macquarie (seriously, this guy loved throwing his name around), Port Macquarie is one of the bigger coastal towns between Sydney and Brisbane with a population close to 50,000.
The upside of a slightly larger town means there are a few more hostels to choose from. There are 3 in fact, and all are rated quite well on Hostelworld. My choice is Beachside Backpackers, as it is the closest to the beach (obviously my main criteria when staying in coastal places!). This hostel has a super-homey feel to it, with most of the dorm rooms opening to the common room, which features the kitchen, TV and games area, a pool table and comfy couches. The hostel is quite social and they organise events throughout the week, so if you’re looking for a bit more privacy or quiet, this place may not be for you.
The Port Macquarie area is known for its koala population, and you can get up close to them at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. The hospital is a not-for-profit organisation with many volunteer workers and treats 200 to 250 sick and injured koalas every year. With the recent bushfires, the work of the Koala Hospital is so important, so do pay them a visit and learn how you can contribute to their work. As a result of COVID-19, you can now only visit the koala hospital with a prior booking, so don’t forget to book ahead!
For more nature and wildlife, take a drive out to Rawson Falls or Ellenborough Falls. At 200 metres, Ellenborough Falls is the tallest single-drop waterfall in New South Wales. On my recent road trip, I visited Rawson Falls and absolutely loved it. Just be careful on the drive out to the falls, as the turn-off from Innes View Rd can be easily missed. The 1.7-kilometre walk to the falls is well sign-posted with lots of informative details on the trees around you.
As you descend from the carpark, the type of forest changes from subtropical rainforest to wet eucalypt forest, then warm temperate rainforest and back to subtropical. That may not mean anything to you, but when you walk it you will definitely notice the difference. The highlight for me was stumbling across a Diamond Python, who must have got quite a surprise when the staghorn he was slithering around crashed to the forest floor.
Almost there! Another 2.5 hours on the Pacific Highway and you’ll get to Newcastle. The second-largest city in New South Wales, Newcastle gets far less attention compared to its glitzy counterpart Sydney. But the secret is slowly getting out, Newcastle is awesome!
Great surf beaches? Tick. Cool street art and cafes? Tick. Awesome coastal walks? Tick. While sometimes still a bit rough around the edges, Newcastle is an underrated spot on the East Coast and it is well worth spending a night or two here, especially if you want to make a side trip to the Hunter Valley for some wine tasting.
I always stay at the Newcastle YHA - again, mainly for it’s close to beach proximity. The building was originally a gentleman's club back when it opened in 1885, before later becoming accommodation for nurses during World War I. Nowadays as a hostel it boasts a huge common area with a fireplace and offers surfboard hire (which I seem to remember being free, but I don’t want to make promises).
As alluded, the hostel is just 2 minutes walk from the beach, so get your morning coffee at The Kiosk before taking on the ANZAC Memorial Walk, which was completed in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. If the weather is warm, make a detour to the Bogey Hole for a refreshing dip. After your walk, head towards trendy Darby Street for lunch and swing back via Foghorn Brewhouse and The Lucky Hotel for beers.
If you didn’t get to see the koalas in Port Macquarie, get yourself to Blackbutt Reserve, it’s free! Something not free, but very reasonably priced at just $40 per person, is a walking tour with local expert Becky. I’m yet to do one of her walks but I’ve heard great things.
Your final stop before Sydney is a choose-your-own-adventure option - Brooklyn or Berowra Waters?
Brooklyn is a sleepy fishing town located on the Hawkesbury River. If you time your visit to Brooklyn right, you’ll be able to join the Riverboat Postman to deliver mail and other essentials to the river-access-only settlements upriver from Brooklyn. The ferry departs at 10:00 am from Mondays to Fridays and on Sundays at 11:00 am. The 3-hour cruise includes morning tea (ANZAC biscuits) and lunch. If you want to stick to dry land, grab some fish and chips at one of the restaurants near the train station and then park down near McKell Park to eat with a view.
For those who choose Berowra Waters, aim for the car park near “A Chef Secrets”. There is a regular ferry service across to the Waterview Restaurant, or to really wow someone, book in at the Berowra Waters Inn, which is only accessible by water (complimentary boat transfer is included in your reservation). I’m still looking for that someone, so I’ll stick to bushwalking, and the Hawkesbury Track is an excellent option. Perch yourself up on a sandstone boulder and take in the snaking river views.
When you’re ready to move back on, it is just a 45-minute drive back to the heart of Sydney. And you’re done!
I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you do this road trip, I’d love to hear about your favourite stops. You can either leave a comment below or book one of my small-group Sydney tours and tell me in person.