Sydney is the undisputed gateway to Australia so unsurprisingly receives the most tourists of the country. But there is an entire coastline just begging to be explored to the north of Sydney up to Brisbane and beyond. I’ve lived on the coast my whole life and have travelled up and down it times too numerous to count and the good thing is that not once have I ever seen it overrun by tourists.
The coast is full of cities and towns, each a different size, each with its own quirks and character, and of course, each with multiple beaches. Beaches will be a common theme in this post so strap yourself in, I won’t be ignoring them just because they are everywhere!
Australia’s public transport system is notoriously shite so the best way to explore the east coast is easily by car. Pick up your pre-arranged car rental in Sydney and drive up the coast (Alpha Car Hire have very competitive rates).
It should take about 10 and a half hours to drive from Sydney to Brisbane, but by breaking it up into 1-2 hour blocks over a couple of weeks, you’ll see some of the best coastline and towns that NSW has to offer at a rather leisurely pace.
The NSW east coast is primed for camping, with national parks and holiday parks in great supply. This can be a really cheap way to travel if money is tight. Not to mention, camping is fun and gets you closer to nature than almost any other activity. Pick up some cheap gear on Gumtree and relist it immediately in the region you expect to finish in anticipation of passing it off to someone else.
I’ve picked out some of my favourite places along the east coast to help you know where to stop on your East Coast road trip but of course, you should always go where the moment takes you. Take the scenic route. Take a recommendation from a local. Pull over at a place you’ve never heard. And go have an adventure.
I’ve purposely not included a length of time you should take to make this journey. That’s because that is entirely up to you! Theoretically, each of these headings could be a day’s drive or less. But you could also easily spend 2-3 days at any of them so this could be a 5 day driving tour of the east coast or it could be a 4 week driving tour! You decide.
I expect you probably spent about 3-4 days in the metropolis of Sydney. You had a lot of fun, ate a lot of good food and maybe partied a touch too hard, so now it’s time to get out of the big smoke and relax the pace a little. Pick up your hire car and head north!
I have written loads on Sydney. Get it all here.
Sydney to Avoca Beach
Avoca (and equally, Terrigal) is a tiny suburb on the Central Coast. It’s not much but it’s a real highlight of a somewhat dreary country city. A city surprisingly devoid of traffic lights. There are some classic Australian yellow beaches and some great markets on Sundays. We had a wonderful stay at the Avoca Valley B&B, which is actually set back a little from the coast amongst bush.
Avoca is about 90 minutes from Sydney.
Avoca Beach to Newcastle
Newcastle is Australia’s second city, a coal city known for beaching a coal tanker in the wild storms of 2007, and was discovered in some pretty comical circumstances. I argue it’s Australia’s most underrated city because of the completely laid back attitude (even for Australians), the incredible food and coffee scene, and is bafflingly untouched by tourists. But most of all I love that you can be in the CBD having a coffee or ice cream and a 5 minute walk will have you at the beach.
Newcastle is about an hour from Avoca. Read my guide on what to do in Newcastle here.
Optional stop: The Entrance for morning tea or coffee.
Newcastle to Port Stephens
Port Stephens is virtually untouched – even by Novocastrians who live on its doorstep. There are more beaches than you can poke a stick at, some on the coast, some on Port Stephens harbour – so you can pick if you want the water to be wavy or calm/filled with boats. Anna Bay is great for waves and Shoal Bay is nice and calm. Shoal Bay also has a great jetty for jumping and a fantastic (and short) walk up Tomaree Head with epic views over Fingal Bay and the whole region.
Port Stephens has plenty of adventure activities, with sand dune quad bike safaris, sandboarding tours, skydiving, and paintball. Or if you want something a little more chill you can take a whale watching cruise or visit Oak Vale Farm: a favourite with the kids!
Port Stephens is just under an hour from Newcastle. If you feel like a splurge, the Oaks Pacific Blue (in Salamander Bay) is an amazing place to stay. An infinity pool (by my definition) loops around the entire resort with most rooms opening out to the water, perfect for a quick summer swim. We stayed there a few weeks and it was just an incredible break.
Port Stephens to Myall Lakes National Park
I’ve gone camping at Myall Lakes for more years than I can count. It’s a very well managed National Park with good facilities that don’t take anything away from the camping experience. Popular with Australians in summer months you can often hear the buzz of power boats and jet skis for most of the day.
Boomerang Beach has a great resort right on the beach, Korsmans Landing is a nice and open grassy area for your tent or campervan, Mungo Brush is well shaded on a calm lake, and Myall Shores (near Korsmans) offers basic accommodation by the lake.
Myall Lakes is about 1.5-2 hours from Port Stephens (you have to backtrack a little) depending on where you stay.
Myall to Port Macquarie
Another beach town, Port Macquarie is also the home of Australia’s Ironman triathlon championship each May. The city centres around the breakwall and town beach, with the Sundowner holiday park situated perfectly in between.
If you have an artistic streak you can paint the rocks on the breakwall. There are no rules here so find a crap or fading rock painting and go nuts on it. My friends and I painted one over 15 years ago and incredibly, it is still there! Just don’t be political, please. There’s no need to have an agenda.
Port Mac is as relaxing as it comes. It is small enough that everything is within walking distance but is big enough to support some cool places to eat and drink.
Port Macquarie is about 2 hours from Myall Lakes National Park.
Port Macquarie to Crescent Head
Crescent Head is a personal favourite of my family’s, we spend a week at Crescent Head every year. There is not a lot to do in Crescent Head but that’s what makes it perfect. It is well known as one of the best surf breaks in the country and the car park is always full of campers with surfboards.
The country club doubles as a 6 hole golf course: where its casual nature is matched only by its incredible scenery, as it snakes its way up the bluff where you much chip onto the green over a cliff. It’s really quite something, and down below is a perfect place to pick up some free second-hand balls!
The bakery makes Crescent Head worth stopping at all on its own. One of the last true bakery with displays filled with delectable pastries, sweets, and pies. Visits become a daily habit that is hard to break back home.
Crescent Head is about an hour from Port Macquarie.
Watch my time-lapse video of Crescent Head below.
Crescent Head to Coffs Harbour
Across Australia, Coffs Harbour is known as the home of the Big Banana. If you’re driving through and need a pit stop, the Banana is the undisputed number 1 choice for road trippers.
Obviously there’s more to Coffs Harbour though, with the Pet Porpoise Pool giving kids young and old an opportunity to interact with marine life, Korora Lookout offering spectacular views of the region, and of course, more beach.
View of Coffs from Sealy Lookout, on Flickr by Andrew Schaffer.
Optional Stop: Dorrigo National Park is just inland and is a great place to camp for the night.
Coffs is about 2 hours from Crescent Head.
Coffs to Byron Bay
Byron Bay known as the hippie capital of Australia, the home of Stone and Wood (one of Australia’s largest independent brewers), and Splendour in the Grass (the biggest music festival in Australia, July). Byron is a great place to enjoy the beach, entertain the idea of eating
Byron is a great place to enjoy the beach, entertain the idea of eating organic, and switch off in a completely laid back atmosphere. However, it’s pretty popular these days so in peak times (or even otherwise), be prepared for crowds.
Cape Byron Lighthouse, on Flickr by Bernard Spragg
Byron is about 3 hours from Coffs.
Optional: break up the trip by stopping in Yamba on the way.
Byron to the Gold Coast
If you thought the crowds were bad in Byron, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Gold Coast is where Australians flock for your typical tropical beach and theme park vacation. (Brisbanites know this so they head north to the Sunshine Coast).
Surfer’s Paradise is the hub of the Gold Coast so I recommend staying a bit out at Burleigh Heads or even Coolangatta. You’ll still get the GC experience without the crowds. And besides, you have a car, you can always drive in to see what it’s all about.
Take in the view from the Skydeck at Q1, Australia’s tallest building. If you’re after some adventure hit up the theme parks, or if nature is more your speed, visit the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary or the Glow Worm caves.
Take a detour to the Gold Coast Hinterland, Springbrook National Park, if you want to get more into nature before you get back into the cities.
Gold Coast to Brisbane
After a week or two driving, you made it to Brisbane. There is plenty more to see up on the Queensland coast so, by all means, keep driving. But while you’re here, read this post to see how I would spend 3 days in Brisbane.
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