If you’ve travelled through northern Queensland, you’ll know that while the region offers some of Australia’s most beautiful rural landscapes, the drive can feel endless if you’re putting in hundreds of kilometres a day.

Northern Queensland is Australia’s agricultural hub, producing the vast majority of the nation’s crops. Sugar cane cars rattle by your rental vehicle and small highway towns pop up in the otherwise outback terrain.

However, don’t be too quick to write off this very cool part of Australia’s east coast. Visiting northern Queensland is a quintessentially Australian experience, and you don’t want miss out by booking it up the Bruce Highway to Cairns. Here are some of our favourite stops along the way.


Nearly 300 kilometres north of Bundaberg, Rockhampton is technically central Queensland, but it’s such a unique city we just had to mention it.

When you stop in Rockhampton, you’ll feel like you’re in an old western movie. The city’s cowboy culture is embodied by the Great Western Hotel, a venue where you can watch an indoor rodeo while dining on juicy steaks, ribs, and other hearty fare. If there’s no bull riding on when you’re in town, be sure to drop into the Great Western to catch another performance or event.

When you stop in Rockhampton, you’ll feel like you’re in an old western movie.

Shopping in Rockhampton is different to what you’ll see in Sydney and Melbourne. The largest livestock sale yard in the Southern Hemisphere, the CQ Livestock Exchange, is just outside of Rockhampton. Not your traditional auction, this is a great chance to really take in Queensland culture as farmers bid on impressive studs.


The road between Rockhampton and Mackay is dotted with signs aimed to keep weary drivers awake and alert. Take a stab at some of the Queensland trivia questions with your travel mates, and pull over to score a good Instagram collage with the signs reading “How long to go dad?” followed by “Still a long way to go kids” a few kilometres down the road.

Don’t bypass Mackay in a rush to get to Airlie Beach. The sugar cane capital of Australia is definitely worth a visit. If you want to stretch your legs, take a walk along the Bluewater Trail that links some of Mackay’s best recreation areas or set up a picnic on the grass at the Mackay Harbour.

This is not your typical seaside town, however – in August, Mackay residents opt for beach horse races over sunbathing, so if you’re travelling through during this time, don’t miss this spectacular sporting event.

Airlie Beach

Drive just 150 kilometres up the Bruce Highway, and you’ll find yourself in Airlie Beach, a busy tourist town known as the gateway to the Whitsundays.

If you have time, you should definitely take a break from your rental vehicle and boat out to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef or pretend to be Jack Sparrow for the day on the pure white sands of Whitehaven Beach.

Prefer to stay on dry land? Airlie Beach is definitely a change in scenery from the other towns you’ll have been driving through. With snorkel enthusiasts, divers, and guides constantly celebrating their most recent reef excursions, Airlie Beach is always a good night out, with several bars and restaurants right in the town centre.

By this point in your trip, you’ll undoubtedly be loving the tropical northern Queensland sun, so make the most of it by spending a day in the Airlie Beach Lagoon.

Bowen and Mission Beach

Just an hour past Airlie Beach is Bowen, this coastal town is the oldest town in northern Queensland. If you aren’t sunned out, enjoy a secluded day at Horseshoe Bay and don’t leave without snapping another “likeable” Instagram in front of Bowen’s famous “Big Mango,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

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Apr 29, 2017 at 9:51pm PDT

Halfway between Airlie Beach and Townsville is Mission Beach –  a series of laid-back beach towns linked by 14 kilometres of World Heritage beaches. The golden sands of Mission Beach are different than the silicate shores of the Whitsundays, but they’re equally enjoyable.


Be sure to stop in Townsville on your final haul to Cairns. Climb up Castle Hill, Townsville’s towering red monolith for endless sea views reaching well beyond nearby Magnetic Island.

Townsville has a trendy vibe you don’t find often in northern Queensland.

Townsville has a trendy vibe you don’t find often in northern Queensland. The city’s vibrant street art and quirky cafes will make you think you’re in Melbourne – well, except for the dramatically sunnier weather.

If cuddling a koala is on your Australian bucket list, don’t miss Billabong Sanctuary before leaving town, This wildlife reserve is home to many of Australia’s famed creatures, including koalas, kangaroos, wombats and crocs.

An enjoyable road trip starts with the right vehicle. If you’re making the big journey through Queensland, the largest state on Australia’s east coast, you’ll need a rental car that can handle the kilometres and keep you comfortable along the way. Check out East Coast Car Rentals’ great offerings today!