You can’t always take the path less travelled. But even for Australia’s most often-driven roads, the ones you retrace time after time, there’s still plenty to discover along the way. By Lee Atkinson
Melbourne to Sydney – The Princes Highway
You can bomb up the Hume Highway to Sydney in nine hours or so, but to put the fun back into that Melbourne-Sydney commute, try the coast road and turn your trip into a three-day holiday.
From Melbourne, the first few hours pass through lush farmlands – gourmet deli country. Try some famous Jindi or Tarrago cheese at Yarragon, then head inland to Sale and across to Bairnsdale to explore the Gippsland Lakes, Australia’s largest waterway system. Spend the night at Paynesville and take the ferry out to Raymond Island, home to a large koala colony.
At Lakes Entrance cast a line from a jetty, riverbank or beach, and then head to the historic timber town of Orbost and on across the border into NSW.
Eden, on the shores of Twofold Bay, is one on the best places to watch whales – the Eden Killer Whale Museum is a must. Stop at the Bega Cheese Factory and wander through the twin villages of Central Tilba and Tilba Tilba; both are heritage-listed and look much as they would have a century ago. Stay the night at beachside Narooma and take the evening penguin watching tour out to Montague Island, every bit as good as the Phillip Island penguin parade but without the crowds.
The highway spears north to Sydney. Check out the surfing kangaroos at Pebbly Beach, stop at Ulladulla for great fish and chips, browse the boutiques in Berry, catch a wave whooshing thorough the Blowhole at Kiama and stockpile some inner harmony at Nan Tien Buddhist Temple, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
You can burn the last leg up the freeway or take your time along the Grand Pacific Drive, aka Sir Lawrence Hargrave Drive, crossing the new Sea Cliff Bridge, a 665m multi-span balanced cantilever bridge that curves around the cliffs 50m out to sea – and the only way to avoid the falling rocks that once tumbled down the cliffs.
If you want one last look at the coast, pull into Stanwell Tops for the big view south, then wind your way through the world’s second oldest national park, the Royal, on the southern outskirts of Sydney. Beats nine boring hours on the Hume any day.
Length: around 1130km, depending on detours
Sydney to Brisbane – The Pacific Highway
Relive the best summer holidays of your childhood by heading out of Sydney on the F3 freeway, but take the Gosford exit and meander through the string of seaside villages and resorts. If you’ve got kids creating havoc in the back, give them a break at The Entrance and let them burn off some energy at Vera’s Playground (RIGHT), a free play pool with lots of colourful sculptures to climb on, over and through.
Continue north through Newcastle, where new foreshore developments like Honeysuckle are giving the former industrial city a makeover, and on to Port Macquarie. Stop here overnight and chill out on one of the town’s 13 beaches, check out the Koala Hospital (feeding time’s 3pm), or try some of the local wine at Cassegrain winery on the edge of town.
Back on the road, stop for a snack at Freddo’s Famous Pies at Frederickton – home to the best pies in the country – and then on to beautiful Bellingen, with its galleries, restaurants and cafes.
You can’t drive through Coffs Harbour without a visit to the infamous Big Banana. Check out the fun rides, including the toboggan, ice-skating, a real snow slope and the best chocolate-covered frozen bananas you’ve ever tasted. Another big thing is just three hours up the road – Ballina’s big prawn.
Stretch the legs at Uki, a cute town overshadowed by the dominating peak of Mt Warning (LEFT), then cross the border into Queensland. Have some quality quiet time with the glowworms of Springbrook National Park, before succumbing to the non-stop action of the Gold Coast theme parks.
On the way into Brisbane, stop and check out the views across the Brisbane River at Kangaroo Point.
Length: around 940km
Brisbane to Cairns – The Pacific Coast
Escape to the tropics in Tropical North Queensland on a five-day, 1700km drive from Brisbane to lush and steamy Cairns. Head north to Bundaberg via the Sunshine Coast.
If you’ve got kids, take them to see the crocodile hunter at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo (RIGHT), or introduce them to the wonders of the deep at Mooloolaba’s Under Water World. If you’re not in a rush – and you shouldn’t be on this trip because there are so many terrific things to see and do.
Spend at least a lazy day paddling the waterways around Noosa; Cooloola is considered one of the best canoeing spots in Australia and the tannin-stained water of the upper Noosa River is famous for its spectacular reflections.
Then it’s north to Bundaberg, home to the famous Bundy rum – you can tour the distillery, visit offshore coral cay islands such as Lady Musgrove or Lady Elliot, Mon Repos turtle rookery or wander around the impressive historic buildings in the centre of town before hitting the road again up to Rockhampton, Beef Capital of Australia.
Stop at Cape Hillsborough, north of Mackay. Surrounded by national park, it’s a nature lover’s paradise – but be warned, you may have to fight the local wallabies for space on the beach. Continue north to Bowen, gateway to the Whitsundays. It’s an undiscovered paradise with dozens of unspoiled bays and beaches and a great place to explore the stunning coral of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
At Townsville, take the car ferry to Magnetic Island and spend a day or two relaxing – or for a change of pace head for Horseshoe Bay on the far side of the island for a little bit of jet ski action or some horse riding along the beach.
Leaving Townsville, the countryside gets greener as you head into sugarcane country. Spend a night in the historic country town of Ingham and take a 40min detour to one of the north’s little known wonders, Wallaman Falls, the biggest single-drop waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere.
If you have the time on the final 233km leg to Cairns, head to Hinchinbrook Island, stop at Mission Beach and check out the Spanish castle ruins and rainforest gardens at Paronella Park.
Sydney to Canberra – The Capital Run
Sydney to Canberra is an easy three-hour run, but it you have to do it on a regular basis it quickly becomes a mindlessly brain-numbing run. It doesn’t need to be that way.
The Southern Highlands villages of Moss Vale, Mittagong, Bowral and Berrima are great places to turn off for a spot of antique shopping. But if that’s not your thing, keep going until you reach Goulburn, which is where the fun really begins. It’s one thing to zoom down the highway at 110km/h, but if you really feel a need for some serious speed head to Wakefield Park on the Braidwood Road, 13km south of Goulburn. It’s one of the few privately owned motor racing circuits in Australia. You can hurl your own car around the track on special No Speed Limit Days, or if your racing car is in the shop this week, you can take a few hot laps with a pro driver in a V8 Supercar or V8 Auscar.
Back in Goulburn, head to the tiny hamlet of Collector just off the Federal Highway towards Canberra. The Bushranger Hotel, best known for the infamous shooting of Constable Nelson by outlaw Ben Hall and his gang in 1865, is in the centre of town, but the gastronomic heart is the Lynwood Cafe and is the place to go for fabulous food – it was named one the world’s top five restaurants in great locations by London’s Guardian newspaper.
Canberra’s just down the road, but if you’ve got time to spare, take a detour to Gundaroo. Until recently, there weren’t too many reasons to visit this historic village on the banks of the Yass River. But since the opening of Grazing restaurant inside the National Trust Royal Hotel, all that has changed. The cosy restaurant with its open fireplaces offers a menu uniquely focused on the Canberra district, showcasing the best local fresh farm produce and probably the world’s largest Canberra district wine list.