Driving the Pacific Coast Way: Airlie Beach to the Gold Coast
Route: The Pacific Coast Way stretches along the majority of the Bruce Highway between Cairns and the Gold Coast, taking in all the highlights of the QLD coastline along the way. We chose to tackle half of it, beginning in the Whitsundays gateway of Airlie Beach and driving south to the Gold Coast/Tweed Heads.
By the Places We Go team
In these parts, the moment you spot the sparkling coastline, you just know you’re in a special part of the world.
QLD’s Whitsundays are just that. Not only are they a group of some of the most idyllic islands in the world, they are also a stretch that’s home to some of Australia’s most beloved and special resort destinations.
They don’t call this the Sunshine State for nothing – most days the sun is shining, the warm air embraces you like a hug, and you can literally smell the tropics. People come here every year for a dose of ‘the good life’, and many attribute it to the fountain of youth.
One of our favourite drives in Australia, the Pacific Coast Way is so special because it follows the Pacific Ocean the entire way. There are not many sections of this 1000km-plus road trip where you can’t glance out of the car window and spot the aquamarine ocean. It means there are countless places to stop, stay, swim, and soak up the sun.
The Pacific Coast Way officially runs between Cairns in the far north and the Gold Coast in the far south of the state – about 1700km apart – and along one main highway, so you can’t get lost. Yet you can tackle the drive between any two points along the way if the entire journey is too much.
We flew to Whitsunday Coast Airport in Proserpine to begin our adventure and spent a few days in Airlie Beach. This is the main jumping-off point to the Whitsunday Islands, and a bustling resort town.
Flanked by Conway National Park to its south, and the ocean to the east, Airlie Beach is the perfect place for lovers of the great outdoors. Life here revolves around spending time outside, and people alternate between fishing, sailing, heading out to the islands for diving and snorkelling, and of course, good old-fashioned swimming and sunbathing.
"There are not many sections of this 1000km-plus road trip where you can’t glance out of the car window and spot the aquamarine ocean."
The main part of town boasts a lagoon for family-friendly swimming year-round. It is the perfect place to throw a rug down on the grass and spend the day.
Head to Shute Harbour across town to throw a fishing line in – you’ll always be in good company. And if you can’t catch dinner, head to the Whitsunday Sailing Club for a meal and a sundowner on their expansive deck.
We got up with the birds one morning and went to Abell Point Marina where we were greeted by dozens and dozens of boats, from fishing charters to super yachts, gently rocking on the water in the early morning light. We were jumping on board with Ocean Rafting to spend a day in the Whitsunday Islands.
Ocean Rafting aims to offer guests ‘three days in one’ among the islands, via an exhilarating ride on their super-fast inflatable vessels that significantly cut the travel time. This also adds to the overall experience – guests get a thrilling ride to and between the islands as well as all the highlights of three locations during the day.
"We were greeted by dozens and dozens of boats, from fishing charters to super yachts, gently rocking on the water in the early morning light."
Our first stop was a calm inlet of Hook Island known as Butterfly Bay. Part of Whitsundays Islands National Park, it is a dedicated ‘green zone’ and World-Heritage site.
We wasted no time pulling on wetsuits and jumping into the water with our snorkels and spent the next 45min exploring the pristine underwater world of the Whitsundays. One of the first things we spotted was a hawksbill turtle, which swim among some of the best coral to be found in the region, and everyone agreed it was a magical start to the day.
We headed around the corner to our next snorkelling site and were welcomed by a giant grouper waiting for us in the water. It is evident ‘George’ likes to greet guests like us, and he is not shy about swimming up to snorkellers, along with schools of other reef fish that literally surrounded us.
Our final destination was Whitsunday Island, home to world-renowned Whitehaven Beach. After lunch, most of us walked up to Hill Inlet lookout to cast our eyes over the 7km of silica sand that forms this natural wonder. The views were breathtaking.
Back on the beach itself, and despite the heat, it was easy to walk along the pure white sand due to its silica content that keeps it cool. We could have spent forever on its shore, splashing in the crystal-clear water and lapping up the postcard scenery that surrounded us. But it was drawing towards the end of the day, and one last wild ride back to Airlie Beach awaited us.
Without doubt, BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort is one of Australia’s premier holiday parks, set among sprawling landscaped tropical gardens. Among the park’s many first-class features are a giant waterpark with 13 waterslides, mini-golf, an animal park, and much more.
With a wide accommodation range, you have the perfect place to relax after a busy day whether you’re exploring the wider surrounds or staying within the park’s boundaries.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from Airlie Beach. On previous visits we have taken yacht charters, dive charters, and even scenic flights in the region, and we are always overwhelmed by how much there is to do here. But it was time to get on the road and head south.
You could literally stop anywhere along the route, and we broke our journey next in the town of Yeppoon – the gateway to yet another tropical Queensland island, Great Keppel Island.
Basing ourselves at BIG4 Capricorn Palms Holiday Village, about 8km from Yeppoon and 300m from pretty Mulambin Beach, it was the perfect Capricorn Coast location. We could easily take advantage of the revamped waterfront precinct in Yeppoon – great for kids! – or catch the ferry to Great Keppel Island.
It is just a 30min transfer to the biggest of the Keppel Island Group, and upon arrival you can take your shoes off and sink your feet into the soft white sand that surrounds the island.
We met with Brett from Great Keppel Island Adventures, the perfect way to explore the island for the day, and hopped on board their kayaks for a leisurely paddle in the majestic waters.
Great Keppel Island is one of the treasures of the Southern Great Barrier Reef and oozes that perfect, laid-back island vibe with no less than 17 sandy beaches to choose from. Fringing reef protects the island, making the waters calm…perfect for a kayak adventure.
"Great Keppel Island is one of the treasures of the Southern Great Barrier Reef and oozes that perfect, laid-back island vibe with no less than 17 sandy beaches to choose from."
We paddled to some of the top spots around the island and were able to fit our snorkels and simply drop off the side of our kayak into an aquarium-like world of reef fish, parrot fish, coral trout, and the odd grouper or two.
Kayaking and snorkelling create an appetite, and our advice was to drop into the Great Keppel Island Hideaway Bar & Bistro for a feed and a drink before getting back on the ferry to the mainland.
After enjoying the Southern Great Barrier Reef region, it was time to continue our journey south. There are plenty of places to stop on the drive between Yeppoon and Fraser Island, our next destination, including Seventeen Seventy and Bundaberg: drop into the rum distillery to see how the iconic brew is made.
Once you make it to Hervey Bay or Rainbow Beach you can jump on the ferry and barge services that operate to the island. Fraser Island is 4WD-vehicle only – and the ‘roads’ on the island are all sand tracks – so either leave your vehicle behind here or bring your 4WD across. We took our vehicles for our own 4WD adventure and set up camp for one of the most memorable few days on our travels.
I’ll never forget navigating our way through the waves as we drove along the sandy highway of the island – 75 Mile Beach. It was exciting and slightly terrifying for us first timers, but so much fun.
The World Heritage island is the largest sand island in the world at around 110km long and 20km wide, and there’s no better way to get a true sense of just how unique it is than by air.
We decided to jump on a scenic flight to check it out. Sure enough when we met our pilot, he was kicking back on a beach chair on the sand, wearing board shorts with his plane parked beside him. He looked like he was the happiest pilot in the world.
"When we met our pilot, he was kicking back on a beach chair on the sand, wearing board shorts..."
As soon as we took off, the swirling sand dunes below us looked like a painting; with 45 dune lakes – including the world’s largest – beneath us and the scale of the island becoming apparent. From this vantage point you can also see something you can’t see anywhere else in the world: where rainforest grows in sand at elevations above 200m.
Back on the sand as the sun was going down, and before we headed back to our campsite, we visited Lake McKenzie to watch the colours of dusk settle on the still dune lake touted as the ‘jewel’ of the island. It was a spectacular way to end the day.
After our Fraser Island adventure, we continued down the QLD coast towards the Gold Coast. Of course, it’s hard to go past our favourite resort town of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast without stopping – and we highly recommend it – but our final goal was the QLD/NSW border.
We ended our road trip in Tweed Heads at BIG4 Tweed Billabong Holiday Park, which boasts one of the best waterparks we have seen in Australia. It certainly captures the attention of the family: young and old.
We loved the location to explore the Gold Coast. Aside from the theme parks, our favourite experiences were a visit to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary to hold cute koalas and feed the crocs, and a walk through pristine Burleigh Head National Park.
We took the ‘Rainforest Circuit’ walk, a 45min, 2.3km return path to Tungun Lookout where we were treated to the sight of whales breaching in the Pacific below us. With views stretching to Surfers Paradise and beyond, it was the perfect ending to our incredible Pacific Coast Way road trip.
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Have you driven this route, or parts of it? If so, what do you remember most about it? We’d love to read your thoughts, so please leave a comment.
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