While Australia’s famous Opera House and, thanks to a certain ’80s film about a knife-wielding crocodile hunter, its vast red outback are familiar the world over, the country’s tropical side has received a little less attention. But what the Red Centre and Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) have in breathtaking mystique and mind-boggling remoteness, the Queensland coastline has in aquamarine beauty and abundant wildlife.
Queensland, Australia’s northeastern state, encompasses lush rain forests in its wild undeveloped north, beautiful island chains off its shoreline and family-filled theme parks in the south. Running alongside is the Great Barrier Reef. The world’s largest coral reef stretches for nearly 1,700 miles and is home to a stunning array of vibrant corals and fish, turtles, dolphins and shellfish. While ‘Straya (as the locals abbreviate it) is well known for its hair-raising creatures, the only sharks you’ll find off the Queensland coast are the smaller, harmless species. The Great Whites prefer Sydneysiders.
Several coastal towns serve as gateways to exploring the reef, with Cairns, Port Douglas and Airlie Beach among the largest. Cairns, (pronounced ‘Cans’ by the Aussies and by visitors attempting to blend in with the locals), relies heavily on reef tourists. Snorkelling and diving trips allow travelers to get up close and personal with some of the planet’s most beautiful marine life, while glass-bottom boat trips cater to those who prefer not to get wet. Floating in the turquoise waters, waiting to catch a glimpse of a passing turtle, the closing jaws of a giant clam and or even Nemo himself (despite his accent, he’s a Queenslander), it’s easy to see why the reef is such a draw. It’s worth noting that it’s definitely at its best on a sunny day as a cloudy sky can mute the colors underwater. Fortunately Cairns has more than 240 sunny days a year on average, making it on par with Florida in terms of sunshine. Queensland is, after all, Australia’s Sunshine State.
While modern Australian cuisine is a mix of European and Asian, there are still some unique “delicacies” to sample. And there’s no better place than Queensland to try a grilled crocodile skewer (a greasy halfway house between fish and chicken) or a kangaroo steak.
South of Cairns, Airlie Beach is not only a gateway to the reef, but also to the Whitsundays, a chain of 27 picturesque islands. Hamilton Island is the largest island resort in the chain, complete with its own golf course. Accommodation includes top-end hotels such as the truly luxurious Qualia as well as more affordable rental apartments. Other islands, such as the whimsically named Daydream Island and Hayman Island, are entirely covered by one resort.
The jewel in the Whitsunday’s crown is the stunning Whitehaven Beach. Stretching more than 4 miles across the coast of Whitsunday Island, its blue and turquoise waters and bright white sands are truly idyllic. From the lookout at Tongue Point, it’s not hard to understand why Whitehaven was crowned the South Pacific’s Best Beach by TripAdvisor users last year. The sand is so fine it squeaks under foot. Legend has it NASA used some of it to make the glass for the Hubble telescope, which doesn’t seem so unlikely when you feel it between your toes. At low tide, bathers can share a dip in crystal clear pools alongside the fish.
Further south again lies the Sunshine Coast. The town of Noosa, built along the seafront and around a tranquil estuary, has grown into a popular vacation spot in recent years. Much of the town’s development has happened in the last 30 years, and its clean streets and shiny newness give it an almost toy-town air. Its boutique-lined high street, Hastings Street, runs parallel to its golden beach, which attracts surfers throughout the year. Bar and restaurant Miss Moneypenny’s offers a range of classic cocktails and some with its own spicy or berry-infused twist, while down the street Sails restaurant almost sits on the beach. Diners should reserve and ask for a front table to enjoy a moonlight ocean view over dinner, which is likely to include one of the fish specials from the day’s catch. Nearby Wasabi Bar and Restaurant has enjoyed acclaim for its use of locally sourced produce to create delicious traditional and contemporary Japanese dishes.
While some of the more famed humpback whale-watching sights are further north, including at Hervey Bay, whale- and dolphin-watching tours also set sail from Noosa. If visitors are lucky, they might even catch a group of dolphins splashing about not far from the beach. The lakes formed by the estuary attract watersports fans. The calm waters are ideal for paddleboarding, kayaking and even jet-skiing. Those with a waterside view can enjoy beautiful sunrises and sunsets over the water. Visitors can also hand-feed dolphins in Tin Can Bay, a 90-minute drive away. lt’s worth noting this experience is not quite as romantic a notion as it sounds. However children, and the young at heart, might enjoy holding out a fish for whichever wild dolphins show up for breakfast that day.
Queensland hosts many of Australia’s best surfing beaches. Many of these are clustered in the south, along the Gold Coast. Burleigh Heads is a popular spot, but it’s important to note that ocean currents can be fierce, with many an unsuspecting surfer getting caught in a rip. Lifeguards patrol within certain hours and mark out safer spots, but for beginners it might be worth taking a few lessons at one of the many surf schools dotted along the coast.
If you tire of everything the ocean has to offer, Surfer’s Paradise has a host of theme parks to keep the family entertained. Dreamworld is a particular favorite with Aussie tourists, and the town’s nightlife is also popular with young Australians and backpackers.
Between the Sunshine and Gold Coasts sits Brisbane, the state capital. Australia’s third largest city lacks its own natural sands, but it does have its own artificial lagoon and beach, in the South Bank Parklands, which proves a hit on summer days. The Streets Beach area was built in the early ’90s but the design of its bars and cafes harks back to a bygone age.
A boat cruise is a relaxing way to get a sense of Brisbane, with some offering lunch, dinner and high tea onboard. The city itself has started to emerge from the shadow of Sydney and Melbourne and has a growing arts scene. The Queensland Museum explores not only the state’s human history, but also explains Australia’s extinct megafauna. This is the place to go if your curiosity is piqued by talk of giant wombats. If modern day marsupials are more your thing, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary lets visitors meet kangaroos and cuddle koalas.
Australia’s Sunshine State is a must for sun-worshippers and ocean lovers, but it has plenty more to offer.