Drive North Queensland: Cairns to Airlie Beach Road Trip

cairns to airlie beach road trip
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Australia is the kind of country that is best explored behind the wheel of a car and this certainly applies to North Queensland. Many of the best places to experience such as deserted beaches, waterfalls and freshwater creeks, can be quite remote so self-driving is the best way to see them.

We recently drove between Cairns and the Whitsundays, which usually takes us about 8 hours (620 kms) with a couple of short stops along the way.

On this particular trip we wanted to take our time and explore a few places along the way so we decided to hire a campervan so that we could stay overnight in some of the regions fantastic national parks.

This gave us extra flexibility because the accommodation options on the long stretches of road in North Queensland can be limited.

Here’s what we did:

Day 1: Cairns to Mission Beach

We excitedly picked up our Jucy ‘Condo’ campervan mid-morning which was fitted with all the modcons and basically a home-away-from-home. It had two double beds and plenty of head room, a small kitchen and a flat screen TV, so perfect for a family of three (two adults & one child).

After loading up with luggage, entertainment, food, beers and a bottle of wine, we set off.

Etty Bay CassowaryOur first stop was Etty Bay just south of Innisfail.

We decided to divert off the Bruce Highway to find some lunch and were immediately rewarded by the sight of a Cassowary.

These prehistoric looking birds are only found in the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland and, like many species, they are under threat.

Its fairly rare to see cassowaries in the wild so we were really lucky to see this one was casually walking across a field and then right across the road in front of us.

When we arrived at Etty Bay, we discovered a quaint, picturesque little beach where the rainforest comes right down to the shoreline.

etty bay north queenslandThere’s not much there apart from the beautiful beach, a campground, a few buildings and a café claiming to make the best fish and chips in Australia.

And to be honest, they actually were quite good.

Then we set off for our overnight destination of Mission Beach.

Day 2: Mission Beach

We awoke to glorious blue skies and decided it was a beach day so our Jucy campervan had the day off.

mission beachMission Beach is the quintessential tropical beach with warm turquoise water and coconut palms leaning over huge wide sandy beaches.

We bought a boogie board and hit the waves, enjoying the Queensland sunshine.

Note: October to May is stinger season in North Queensland so wear a stinger suit in the ocean during these months.

Day 3: Mission Beach to paluma

bingil bay cafeWe started the day by driving round to the popular Bingil Bay Café. We had the most enormous and delicious breakfast that set us up for the day.

We then headed for Wallaman Falls – Australia’s highest single drop of water.

The falls are quite a few kilometres off the main highway but you can pretty much drive all the way to the top and the road is tarmac all the way.

We took a few photos then headed a little further south to Jourama Falls, another beautiful North Queensland waterfall. However, while it’s a much shorter road to Jourama, you have to walk further when you get there so make sure you have your walking shoes with you and a bottle of water.

big crystal creek campgroundNext stop was Big Crystal Creek in Paluma National Park where we camped overnight.

We arrived late afternoon with just enough time to spot the turtles in the creek before nightfall.

 

Day 4: paluma to bowen

Woke to an amazing sunrise at Big Crystal Creek then packed up and drove up the range to the village of Paluma. The views along the way are amazing and it is noticeably cooler high up above the coast. We stopped for a coffee and walked one of the trails before setting off again and heading south to Bowen.

sunrise at big crystal creek paluma

The landscape between Cairns and Townsville is so lush and green that it’s called the ‘Great Green Way’ but south of Townsville it changes dramatically to flat, dry and scrubby bushland.

It is a less scenic drive and unfortunately there are relatively few places of interest to stop on this section of road.

Ayr and Home Hill are the two main towns you pass through, both traditional sugarcane towns, which are not really built for tourism so only really good for a short pitstop.

After a long drive we finally reached Bowen and decided to stop overnight.

beaches in bowenBowen is known for its beaches so we camped in the caravan park at Horseshoe Bay and finished the day rock hopping on the beach and watching the sunset.

It was a beautiful beach but the town is very quiet so there’s not much else to see.

We just stayed for the night.

Day 5: bowen to airlie beach

The next morning we hit the road pretty early. We decided to stop at Dingo Beach on the way which was so amazing that we decided to follow the dirt road a little further to Cape Gloucester.

cape gloucester eco resortCape Gloucester is an absolutely stunning beach and surprisingly undeveloped – all of the attention has obviously been on the Whitsunday islands off the coast rather than on this fantastic coastline.

There are a couple of eco resorts there so we decided to hang around, order a couple of pina coladas and wait until lunchtime.

Mid-afternoon we excitedly arrived in Airlie Beach. It couldn’t be more different to Bowen – its a lively holiday town with gorgeous beaches, man-made swimming lagoon, outdoor cafes, touristy shops and plenty of places to stay from luxury resorts to five-star holiday parks.

travel nq fast facts

  • In Cairns there are several campervan hire companies. We chose Jucy based on price and campervan’s facilities.
  • When you drive North Queensland, make sure you have plenty of fuel before diverting off the main highway to explore.
  • Try to avoid driving around North Queensland at dusk when wildlife is more active.

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