East Coast
Travel Tips

East Coast Itinerary: Sydney to Cairns in Three Weeks

Posted on 14 February 2020

It’s one of the nation’s top trips - the great Australian east coast adventure. Full of remarkable destinations and once in a lifetime experiences, one of the best ways you can traverse the country and see this coastline is by driving! Not sure where to begin? Jump on our 21-day self-drive escapade, starting in Sydney and finishing in Cairns, for the ultimate road trip that won't require weeks of planning. 

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No need to stress if you don’t have your own wheels for this trip, we can help sort out a vehicle with campervan or car hire right here. We’ve broken down each day and night of this trip to bring you the best that you can squeeze into three weeks, including budget stays for each night of the week. Whether you want to sleep in the car, bring a tent or find a hostel bed to rest your head, we’ve got you covered. 

So, what are you waiting for? Pack the car and your things and get going on your epic adventure from Sydney to Cairns. Drive safe and happy travelling!

Day 1: Sydney to Blue Mountains 

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Today’s the day - you are embarking on the first leg of your three week east coast trip! Make sure you’ve packed the night before so you can arise early this morning, jump in the car and get going. Feel like seeing some of New South Wales best natural beauties? Then head out to the Blue Mountains, less than 2 hours drive from Sydney. You won’t be short of places to explore and scenery to marvel at here. Visit the area's country villages, choose a bushwalk to complete or find a lookout to take in the many incredible views. 


Day 2: Blue Mountains to Port Stephens 

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Hitting the road today for around 3.5 hours, you are heading for Port Stephens, a particularly beautiful place on the east coast. Along with the views and scenery, there are plenty of activities to be done here. You can take a dolphin and whale watching tour, hike to Mount Tomaree or Gan Gan Lookout, go kayaking or standup paddleboarding, hire a bike or simply choose one of the many pristine beaches to relax on like Zenith Beach or Fingal Spit Beach. 



Day 3: Port Stephens to Port Macquarie 

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In a little under 3 hours, you’ll reach Port Macquarie, another beautiful coastal destination north of Sydney. Our top recommendations for a day here include Tacking Point Lighthouse, Sea Acres Rainforest Centre, Billabong Zoo, Sealy Lookout, Forest Sky Pier, Dolphin Marine Magic and the Big Banana Fun Park. If you want to spend today relaxing and simply enjoying more of the region’s natural beauty, visit Lighthouse Beach, Ngambaa Nature Reserve, Coffs Coast Regional Park or the North Coast Regional Botanic Gardens. 


Day 4: Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour to Red Cliff 

Today’s itinerary covers two destinations, Coffs Harbour and Red Cliff. The drive from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour should take around 1 hour and 40 minutes. Once you arrive here, check out the marina and jetty, Macauleys Headland Walk, Dorrigo National Park and Red Rock or Diggers Beach. You can stick around this area and stay the night at one of the campgrounds nearby, or drive another 1.5 hours to Red Cliff and Lake Arragan to camp, swim and sleep! 


Day 5: Red Cliff to Byron Bay 

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Red Cliff to Byron Bay will take you around 2 hours, 3 if you decided to overnight in Coffs Harbour. We’re giving you a few days to relax and explore Byron Bay, the town famous for its beautiful surf spots, beaches and laidback atmosphere. For your first day here, you might want to walk or drive up to Cape Lighthouse, check out the shops or grab a beer at The Beach Hotel overlooking Main Beach. 



Day 6: Byron Bay 

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Once you’ve had time to see the sights of Byron Bay, amp up your exploration with some activities! If you really want to sightsee, try skydiving. There are heaps of water-based ventures to add to your itinerary here, including kayaking, a surf lesson, snorkelling and diving. 


Day 7: Byron Bay to Nimbin 

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You may or may not have heard of Nimbin, just under 1.5 hours drive inland from Byron Bay. Nimbin is infamous as an “alternative lifestyle” destination, a small country village where free-spirited folk frequent. You can jump on a tour direct from Byron Bay, the bus operating as an experience in itself, and better enjoy the hinterland scenery and your time in the town without having to worry about driving.

Day 8: Byron Bay to Caloundra 

From Byron Bay to the Sunshine Coast, today is going to involve a bit of time on the road. The drive north should take around 3 hours, longer if you want to stop in at the Gold Coast or Brisbane to break up the journey. There’s plenty of places to overnight on the Sunshine Coast, but we suggest Currimundi, just by Caloundra. Currimundi Lake is perfect for swimming and kayaking, plus there is a great coastal track to take by foot or bike to stretch your legs after a day of driving. 


Day 9 & 10: Caloundra to Noosa Heads

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Continuing north, today set your sights on Noosa, only an hour’s drive from Currimundi. Head straight to Noosa’s central precinct, Hastings Street, and then to the Noosa Spit/Noosa River Mouth - a great spot to park up for breakfast, have a morning dip and start sightseeing. You can hike the Noosa National Park from here, a coastal track with incredibly rewarding views and beautiful protected beaches. Or, if you want a higher outlook, head to Mount Tinbeerwah Lookout, a 20 minute incline that promises unbeatable views of Noosa and the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.  

Did you know Noosa has its own Everglades? If you want to explore one of only two everglade systems in the world while you’re in the region, jump on a river cruise or paddle your way upstream by canoe. Our other top activities for Noosa include a two-hour surf lesson at Main Beach and electric bike hire, a fun way to explore the area and its surroundings. 



Day 11: Noosa Heads to Rainbow Beach

You can’t miss a trip to Rainbow Beach while visiting the Sunshine Coast. If you’re lucky enough to be travelling in a 4WD, you can take the car ferry from Tewantin to Noosa North Shore and access the beach track from here. Otherwise, head up the highway and in less than two hours, you’ll arrive in Rainbow Beach. Activities are aplenty here - you can sandboard at Carlo Sand Blow, learn to surf on an uncrowded beach, go standup paddleboarding, beach horse riding, take a half-day kayaking tour, or simply park up at the local surf club for a drink. 


Day 12 & 13: Rainbow Beach to Fraser Island

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Rainbow Beach is the ultimate gateway to one of the most pristine, beautiful places you can visit on the east coast - Fraser Island! If you’re road tripping with a 4WD you can bring it over by barge and self-guide on the island. Otherwise, we advise jumping on one of Fraser’s tag along tours. You’ll still get a chance to drive on the beach and explore the island, with some great added inclusions and your accommodation and food covered! The tours visit all of the islands renowned highlights, including Lake McKenzie, Eli Creek, SS Maheno Shipwreck, Champagne Pools and Indian Head. 


Day 14: Rainbow Beach to Bundaberg 

Arriving back to the mainland, today it’s time to continue the journey north and set your sights on Bundaberg, a drive which should take around 2.5 hours. This Queensland country town has plenty to offer travellers; you can visit the famous Bundaberg Rum Distillery, take a stroll through the botanic gardens, stop by the Hall of Aviation and see the turtles at Mon Repos Turtle Centre.  


Day 15: Bundaberg to 1770 

From Bundy to 1770, you’ve got just under 4 hours of driving to get to this great little coastal town. You can relax today and enjoy the beach, or you might feel up for activities! Our top recommendations include riding a “Chopper” motorbike, learning to surf, watching the sunset while kayaking, kitesurfing or taking off for a 2 day, 1 night castaway adventure on a remote island! 


Day 16: 1770 to Airlie Beach 

You haven’t had to put in too many full days of driving just yet, which is why today we’re suggesting you commit to the highway and 8 hours on the road to get from 1770 to Airlie Beach.



Day 17 & 18: Airlie Beach to Whitsundays

Airlie Beach is the ideal location to explore the world-famous Whitsunday Islands. You can take a day trip out to the Whitsundays, book a sailing adventure or even spend a night camping on one of the islands! If you’re a fan of the outdoors and getting closer to nature, you can also canoe, snorkel or take things up a notch with ocean rafting


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Day 19: Airlie Beach to Bowen. Bowen to Mission Beach 

We have little doubt the Whitsundays will be hard to leave, but there’s plenty further north still to be seen. From Airlie Beach, drive an hour and make a pit stop at Bowen for a swim or to see the Big Mango honouring the region’s beloved fruit. Continue north to Mission Beach, a drive that should take around 5 hours. In this tropical paradise, you can explore the beaches, face your fears with a skydive (landing on the beach!), hike up Bitcon Hill for incredible views and keep the adrenaline going with white water rafting


Day 20 & 21: Mission Beach to Cairns 

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Your adventure of the east coast is nearly over, with the final destination on our suggested itinerary only 2 hours north of Mission Beach. Cairns is the famous gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest. It is also packed full of activities, the perfect place to squeeze in a few treats for the end of your trip. Snorkel or scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef’s spectacular outer reef, go white water rafting down the Barron or Tully River, see the sights of Cairns from the sky via hot air balloon, go skydiving or try the incredible Cairns bungy jump or jungle swing. If you prefer to spend your time relaxing, we recommend a scenic flight or day trip to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest.


Looking for more info before you go? Get in touch. Our team of experts have been there, done that, and they are happy to share their insider tips and traveller tricks with you!