Australia’s beauty is unmatched, and each state brings its own uniqueness to the country. These epic road trips go through more than one state, giving you the chance to marvel at everything Australia has to offer.
1. Sydney to the Gold Coast
Gone are my days of hightailing it from Sydney to Byron or the Gold Coast. By not trying to beat Google’s predicted arrival time, I’ve unearthed a string of pearlescent towns that make the journey just as appealing as the final destination. Who knew they were all glistening in plain sight?
I wholly endorse slowing it down and spending a handful of days to turn this corridor between home and holiday into a true road trip. You might just find a new destination that usurps the usual.
First stop beyond the city limits is the beachside enclave of Old Bar on the Barrington Coast, just east of Taree. It’s a place where boardshorts are worn year-round and the Kombi van retains eternal appreciation, particularly over the October long weekend, when the Old Bar Beach Festival descends with the headline event a parade of the original surfer transporter.
The Manning River makes a break for the ocean here, ensuring it’s a great spot for fishing and water sports; there’s also Saltwater National Park to explore; and the music-themed Boogie Woogie Beach House that will rock you to sleep under the watchful eye of Nick Cave, Dave Grohl or Bowie.
This town on the Macleay Valley Coast is certainly not flying under the radar for surfers, they’ve been riding into shore since the ’50s. Somehow, though, it slips through the cracks in the most delightful way, despite being 20 minutes from the route’s halfway-point of Kempsey.
Crescent Head has an endless summer vibe that is all casualness and zero pretension. The waves are worthy, the headlands are beautiful, even when windswept, and the chillout factor is high. You’ll find great coffee and breakfast at Blackfish, easy-going Mexican at Chanchitas, and inspired accommodation at The Med.
Salute the Big Banana as you glide past Coffs Harbour and into the hamlet of Emerald Beach. Here, you’ll find a Discovery Park, which is great if you’re travelling with kids or a caravan, otherwise, this is beach house territory– throw your wet towel over the balcony and settle in for some deep relaxation.
The beach itself is stunning and shouldered by a headland that plays host to grazing roos. Further along, the amusingly named Look At Me Now Headland makes for an easy stroll. Once you’ve obliged the attention-seeking clifftop, use it as a vantage point to admire the views, then stroll to nearby La Hacienda 101 for a Mexican fiesta and a bracingly good margarita, or coffee and a burger at the Emerald Beach General Store.
Although I’ve been passing Yamba for decades, I’d never made the detour until embarrassingly recently. My unfashionable lateness means I’ve missed out on many a holiday here. Don’t make the same mistake.
As for the accommodation, the riverside Blue Dolphin complete with a giant jumping pillow and swim-up bar is one of the best holiday parks to ever straddle amusements for kids and adults. Meanwhile, the town’s first boutique hotel, The Surf, is a direct antithesis to the Dolphin and exceedingly well put-together.
Quite literally on the flipside to Yamba, both geographically and energetically, is Iluka. The diminutive town across the Clarence River from its better-known southerly neighbour has a sleepier personality but is a haven for outdoor pursuits.
The Iluka Nature Reserve is a place to free-dive into a pristine environment. Let your hair dry with saltwater, your feet toughen under rocks, and eschew dependence on technologies to immerse yourself in nature’s restorative charms. The campground at Woody Head is legendary for barefoot adventures over rockpools and shell-littered sands.
Just 20 minutes north of Byron, this Tweed Coast town is worth a visit, even if your journey ends in the bay. It’s rare to catch a place mid-bloom, but Pottsville is a quiet achiever among the chain of settlements strewn along this coastline and is steadfastly collecting admirers.
Walkable from town is Mooball Creek, a glassy, natural swimming pool perfect for splashing and paddle-boarding that’s divided from Pottsville Beach by a protective seawall. Pottsville village offers plenty of destination eats such as the acclaimed Pipit Restaurant, proper Italian Pottsville Pizzeria, and artisan gelato at Piccolo Mondo.
The drive between Sydney and the Gold Coast via these six towns is 966 kilometres.
2. Inland from Sydney to Melbourne, NSW
The flight from Sydney to Melbourne is one of the world’s top 10 busiest air routes (according to flight data analyst OAG), all the better for making the 845-kilometre inland drive, mostly along the Hume Motorway, a delightfully uncrowded option.
This is one of those drives that most bookmark as something they will do ‘one day’. But it really is worth prioritising for its lovely outlook to rolling hills and flat plains seemingly bleached by the sunshine into a perfect palette of taupe, beige and earthy greens, and its big-name country and regional towns on both sides of the border.
While limited stops will get you to the outskirts of the Victorian capital in about 8.5 hours, taking a few days transforms the journey into an experience in its own right rather than just a means of getting from A to B.
The best towns to visit
In NSW, towns like Goulburn, Collector, Jugiong, Gundagai, Wagga Wagga and Albury are all an easy side trip from the highway, and offer up delights as divergent as canine statues to regional art galleries to award-winning accommodation options.
Over the border in Victoria, signs to Beechworth, considered to be one of the prettiest towns in the country, Rutherglen, with its wineries and seasonal local produce menus at the likes of Jones Winery & Vineyard, and Glenrowan, the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand, are equally tempting to follow.
Add another night to the journey with a stay in Rutherglen at one of Mt Ophir Estate’s six luxury accommodation options including The Residence, the original heritage homestead of the estate, or the cosy Winemakers Cottage.
3. The Nullarbor
When I decided I wanted to cross the Nullarbor a friend gave me the best advice. What they said changed everything about the way I planned and performed the journey. It was, quite simply, “stop and see everything”.
First up, I eliminated time constraints. Also, I went solo. I knew that, chances were, this was a once-in-a-lifetime road trip and I didn’t want anything or anyone pressuring me to pick up the pace.
Ceduna to Point Sinclair
Ceduna, on Wirangu Country, is the Nullarbor’s most eastern town. After oysters and chilled wine at a roadside bar, I headed south down an unsealed road towards Point Sinclair and Cactus Beach. Along the way, I passed between a grey and a pink lake and wondered if I was tripping.
Head of Bight
An hour’s drive west of Yalata community is Head of Bight. Southern right whales can seasonally be seen there but I spied a white pointer at sunrise.
From there it took me eight hours to travel the 200-kilometre stretch to Eucla. Stopping at all six lookouts on the world’s largest limestone karst where the Bunda Cliffs drop into the pounding Southern Ocean was my kind of way to spend a whole day.
That afternoon I crossed into Western Australia and camped on Mirning Country under the biggest, starriest sky. To me, there’s no better accommodation on the Nullarbor.
Still ahead lay adventures to Weebubbie Cave, sand-logged Eucla Telegraph Station and a 20-rung ladder descent into Cocklebiddy Cave. I can’t even tell you how many more days that took and it doesn’t matter anyway. It was never about that.
Eyre Highway (A1) from Ceduna SA to Norseman WA is 1200 kilometres.
Words by Elspeth Callender
4. Mighty Murray River Drive
Weaving its way through three states – NSW, Victoria and South Australia – the mighty Murray River can be navigated by water, of course, but the journey along and over it by road offers up the chance to really understand the significance of its presence on the landscape and to those who dwell close to it.
Aim to start the journey in the twin towns of Albury on the NSW side of the border or Wodonga on the Victorian side, and make sure to build in at least a day to explore them; Albury is a wonderfully cosmopolitan spot with art galleries, fine-dining restaurants like Bistro Selle and boutique accommodation such as Circa 1928, housed in a former Art Deco bank.
Moama & Echuca
Setting off, it is a 227-kilometre drive to the border town of Moama (twinned with Echuca on the opposite side of the river in Victoria), but there are ample diversions along the way to stretch this leg out to a two-day itinerary.
Corowa, Yarrawonga & Lake Mulwala
Corowa, with its modest streetscape dominated by the heritage-listed Corowa Flour Mill (it’s now a whisky distillery and chocolate shop, so well worth the stop for takeaway); Yarrawonga, where Rich Glen Olive Estate produces its award-winning olive oils; and the laid-back holiday town of Lake Mulwala are all worth the time.
Driving the unrelentingly flat landscape, with its golden fields of lucerne and long-dead river red gum trunks forming eerily beautiful sculptures, it’s impossible to know when you are in one state or the other as the road traces the river, which has no inclination to be restricted to being just a line on a map.
Mildura to Goolwa
Beyond Moama/Echuca, the road continues to the Victorian fruit bowl of Mildura, and then over yet another border into South Australia towards Renmark and coming to a conclusion at the mouth of the Murray in Goolwa.
1045 kilometres, give or take a few clicks.
Words by Celeste Mitchell
5. The Savannah Way
Perhaps the country’s ultimate adventure drive, The Savannah Way is an unparalleled opportunity to get to grips with the beauty, diversity and magnitude of northern Australia.
Beginning in Broome and ending in Cairns, this 3700-kilometre coast-to-coast route charts a course between the red sands of WA’s mystical Kimberley and the dazzling blue-greens of Queensland’s Tropical North, via majestic savannahs and the big vistas of the NT’s Top End.
To complete the whole journey in full can take upwards of three weeks, but it can also be tackled in – somewhat – more bite-sized portions, such as the 1700-kilometre leg between the Cairns and Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park near the NT border.
Camp in some of Australia’s most magnificent national parks, such as Nitmiluk.
6. Canberra to Sapphire Coast
The inland route from Canberra to the Sapphire Coast is short, sweet and supremely rewarding; in just three hours you’ll roll, windows down, from the heart of the capital through NSW’s high country before meeting the brilliant blues of the Pacific Ocean.
Then take your time exploring the coast’s string of pearls: laid-back Merimbula with its reimagined 1970s motel (Hillcrest) and destination diner (Valentina); timeless Tathra with its iconic wharf and vibrant pub offering restored heritage rooms to sleep in; and beautiful Bermagui with its famous Blue Pool.
From here, loop back to Canberra the coastal way via jewel-like Narooma with its flush of properties being snapped up by Merivale; vibrant Batemans Bay at the heart of Australia’s Oyster Coast; and, leaving the ocean in the rear-view mirror, the pretty truffle town of Braidwood.
571 kilometres round trip
7. Sydney to Birdsville (and back)
Sure, you could fly from Sydney to Birdsville, but then you’d miss seeing Nyngan’s Big Bogan statue and saying you’ve been to Betoota. You’d also miss dodging emu mobs, errant cattle and feral goats while driving through Queensland’s Channel Country.
You’ll kick up red dust and gibber stones along the austere Birdsville Developmental Road, but once you reach devilishly remote Birdsville, a tinnie of XXXX beer on the pub verandah never tasted better.
After a four-day drive, the legendary Birdsville Hotel’s cosy rooms, barista-made coffee, ice-cold beers and top-notch pub meals are a godsend.
Words by Jo Stewart
8. Cocos Keeling West Island Tour
After arriving at Cocos Keeling Islands, the Australian external territory floating blissfully in the Indian Ocean some 2750 kilometres from Perth, hire a car and set o on a suitably slow (50 kilometres per hour is the fastest you can go) road trip around West Island.
One of only two permanently inhabited islands in the circular atoll of 27 (the other is Home Island), driving here is bliss, given it’s just 14 kilometres in length and has just two main roads: Sydney Highway, which starts at the top of the island at the old jetty, and Air Force Road, which ends at the bottom of the island at The Yacht Club.
In between stop at Trannies Beach for swimming, Rumah Baru to feed giant trevally and Scout Park for reef walking. Combine a trip here with ‘nearby’ (980 kilometres nearby) Christmas Island where the main rule of the road is to avoid driving over any of the million or so native red crabs that throng the island during their spectacular annual migration (and every other day of the year).
Seaward Cocos is architecturally designed, environmentally responsible and luxuriously appointed, accommodating four adults in (island) style.
9. Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast
In the aftermath of the Black Summer fires, friends Erin Boutros and Eleanor Baillieu started an Instagram account to remind their friends and followers to visit affected areas and shop local in the hope of helping communities recover. They called it @emptyesky, and a grassroots food and tourism movement was born. The idea of grabbing an empty esky and filling it with produce and products from Nowra to Kangaroo Island to Gippsland quickly caught on, with organised tours by the likes of AAT Kings making it even easier to get involved.
Then the pandemic struck and the movement was forced into iso like everyone else. But with regions and borders now open, and with a lot of recovery still to be done, charting one of Empty Esky’s self-drive itineraries is the ultimate altruistic adventure. May we suggest the four-day Best Regional Donut drive, starting in Melbourne and tracking along the coast through Morwell (Powerhouse Donuts) and Lakes Entrance (Big Bear Donuts), onto Bermagui (Eastwood’s), Berry (The Famous Berry Donut Van – an Australian Traveller favourite) and the Central Coast (Daily Dough Co) in NSW, and finishing off in Buderim (Dough Ho) on the Queensland Sunshine Coast. Local communities and your taste buds will thank you (if not your waistline).
There’s nothing more satisfying on a long drive than pulling into a roadside motel, and all the better if it has classic mid-20th century bones and a seriously modern refit. Case in point: The Berry View, with its signature 1950s long-slung style now enhanced by joyful shots of orange and a classic Palm Springs-esque aesthetic.
10. Sydney to Canberra via Yass
The drive from Sydney to Canberra possesses many side trip opportunities, including the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan near Campbelltown or the loveliness of the towns and villages of the Southern Highlands (seriously consider stopping at Bendooley Estate in Berrima for lunch along the way), but continuing on the Hume Motorway towards Yass is the most rewarding long-way-round proposition.
Driving down the main street of this big country town, its former prosperity, built on the sheep’s back, is writ large in the grandiose heritage buildings that line it on both sides: grab coffee at Cafe Dolcetto or Trader & Co and take a stroll. Heading out of town will take you through cold-climate wine country along the Barton Highway before delivering you onto Canberra’s wide boulevards at journey’s end.
Little National Hotel Canberra in the suburb of Barton does pint-sized with sleek aplomb.
11. Brisbane to Byron Bay with Kiff & Culture
Kiff & Culture is a non-traditional travel company with a new offering designed to appeal to those who wouldn’t normally consider taking a touring holiday. A three-day foodie foray into the fertile region dubbed the Green Cauldron, the Brisbane to Byron Food Trail takes the contrasting landscapes of the Scenic Rim, Byron Shire and Tweed hinterlands and melds them together with experiences at best-in-class artisan food and drink suppliers along the way. Highlights include stops at renowned venues such as Husk Distillery, The Farm Byron Bay, Cape Byron Distillery and Witches Falls Winery, all of which are underscored by a commitment to sustainable practices.
The experience is topped off by a stay at an equally planet-friendly luxury hotel, Crystalbrook Byron. You’ll travel in fun, Kombi-esque vehicles (the company was born with a Kombi in Cape Town; ‘kiff’ is a South African slang word meaning cool) and have evenings in Byron Bay purposefully left free for you to explore the linger-worthy coastal town at leisure.
“The regions between Brisbane and Byron Bay truly are something special,” says Alex Baker, the company’s head of marketing (and also good times). “Having grown up in the region and spent a large portion of our twenties overseas, we can’t believe there aren’t more offerings like this. From the lush rainforests on Tamborine Mountain looking over the Scenic Rim, to the ancient caldera of the Tweed Hinterland and rolling hills and pristine beaches around Byron Bay, it’s a journey that not only showcases these regions, but celebrates them.”
12. AAT Kings’ Outback Adventure
The drive from the South Australian capital of Adelaide northward through the Red Centre of the country and onto the Top End city of Darwin is more than epic, it is a true odyssey, one that will totally recalibrate your understanding – and your appreciation – of Australia. The most direct route tips out on the odometer at just over 3000 kilometres, but if you want to really indulge in the wonder of the journey then two weeks is what’s needed. AAT Kings’ Outback Adventure itinerary clocks in at 15 days and ticks off every single ‘pinch-me’ moment along the way: Flinders Ranges, Port Augusta, Coober Pedy, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine, Kakadu National Park, Litchfield. We’re exhausted – but a little excited – just thinking about it.
13. Overland Adventure Aboard The Ghan
Specialists in experiential luxury travel the world over, Abercrombie & Kent’s portfolio of Australian adventures reads like a rollcall of boutique bucket-list experiences – from air safaris in the Top End and Kimberley to a wine, wildlife and wilderness tour of Tasmania. And its Overland Adventure Aboard The Ghan is the ultimate example: begin by sampling the best of the Barossa including a stay at luxe accommodation The Louise.
Then, board the legendary train and watch as the Flinders Ranges drop away and the South Australian outback becomes the Northern Territory’s Red Centre. Disembark in Darwin.
14. The Big Lap
The iconic Big Lap is the journey taken to circumnavigate the country at its edge, travelling mainly on Highway 1, which clocks in at about 14,500 kilometres and links almost every mainland state and territory capital.
Considered the longest national highway on Earth, it includes the Princes Highway, Eyre Highway, Great Northern Highway, Stuart Highway, Bruce Highway and Pacific Highway, among others.
Tasmania is an added extra; start in Launceston, take the A10 from Strahan to Hobart, then the Great Eastern Drive up to Freycinet, before looping back in to where you started (adding 890 kilometres to your total).
How long will it take?
As for how long the whole thing will take, you should allow 10 to 12 months to really get the most out of the experience, and even then you probably won’t see everything. Maybe it should be refashioned as the Big Laps.
How to pick one location in a year-long odyssey of amazingness? Let’s just say sleeping under the canopy of the southern skies in a tent, van or swag is probably the most uniquely Australian accommodation you can find.