Traveling up Australia’s Pacific coast is one of the classic drives and after two weeks we have come up with several tips and conclusions about this epic adventure. But before you get to start your journey up the coast you first need to decide on a way to travel. We decided not to camper van (mini-RV) the trip. While we like to RV, in pricing it out, the camper rental, fuel and staying is camper parks or even just parking was about the same as a comfortable car and Air BnB home where it would be easier to cook.
Three tips on getting started with your drive from Sydney:
- Realize that renting a car one way out of Sydney will be expensive. I should have realized this from the beginning and maybe everyone else gets it but since everyone comes to Sydney and drives the rental car fleet north, they charge a substantial ($350) one way drop off fee.
- Bring multiple visa cards with you to rent your car. We rented from EuropCar, a good company that we used in Ireland. For some reason I couldn’t figure out, the company did not like my Chase Sapphire Visa card and insisted on using my Capital One Visa card. It think they were thrown off by the beauty and double thickness of the Sapphire card, but regardless I was happy to have a second card with me.
- Do not force your child to eat lots of blueberries before a long drive. At home John will eat through a huge bag of CostCo frozen blueberries in a weekend if we let him. So at our Coles grocery store in Sydney we found him a bag of frozen blueberries. They were not going to travel well so the morning we started our drive we told him that was his breakfast. Big mistake. The good news is that his sister was on it when John called for a bag to send the blueberry back up as we drove the coast in the record 105 degree heat.
Where to stay? Anywhere really. It reminded us of driving along California’s coastal towns. Every town is focused on the ocean and every town has some cool shops and cafes. There were long stretches of just highway but you could do loops along the coast that connected a little town or two. We read a lot of lists of places to stay at from Australia’s tourist web site to Lonely Planet to favorite travel bloggers and we asked our new Sydney friends – everyone has different ideas the best little places. Having a car allowed us to check out several towns at each stay and also allowed us to stay in reasonable Air BnB places near big towns – we stayed in Suffolk Park just ten minutes from Byron Bay and stayed in Stockton just a five minute ferry from downtown Newcastle.
Three places we will return to:
- Stockton – We loved this little sleepy mostly residential community just a ferry ride from Newcastle. There is almost nothing there except for Lexi’s Coffee on the beach (which had great coffee and really is just steps from the ocean) but it was wonderful to grab the ferry over to Newcastle for dinner and exploring each day. Fishing is clearly a huge part of life here; we saw whole families out fishing each weekend night we were there and the only vending machine at the grocery store was for live and frozen bait! Newcastle has a long industrial town history and is still a huge coal producer. A lot of the timber that rebuilt San Francisco after the big earthquake and Firestorm came out of this port. It was a prison city for a long time before becoming an industrial hub so has an interesting, rough history. When we were there it was so hot they made the industrial plants, which use 15% of the entire electrical supply for the area shut down to make sure people would be able to use their Air Con.
2. Byron Bay – This town has the classic surfer feel where dreadlocked surfers living in their vans comfortably mingling with tourists. The kids took a surf class and we would highly recommend Soul Surf School but our Air BnB host (who has been in the surf industry since the 70’s) said there are no bad choices really. People come here to live a certain laid back life and it shows. The surf instructors said they don’t get paid much but they spend their days surfing. We stayed ten minutes up the road at Suffolk Park. We explored a few towns including Lennox Head and they all are full of laid back folks enjoying life on the ocean. Byron Bay was nicer and less touristy than I expected for this must visit surf mecca. It is normal to see everyone in bare feet and John and I borrowed a body surfing board from our host and went straight from the waves into the very nice Ms. Margaritas restaurant just steps off the beach in bare feet covered in sand.
3. Brisbane and Redfern – this was our first big error in understanding how long to stay in a place you have never visited. Sadly, we only spent one night in Brisbane before flying out early the next day for Cairns. But we did have some time before we could check in to our Brisbane place so we ventured to Redcliffe. Another quaint little seaside town made famous by having the BeeGees grow up and launch their singing career (by persuading the PA guy at the local speedway to let them sing between races and a Sydney DJ heard about them from there.) Judi is a huge fan so it was totally worth the drive and adventure. Our place in Brisbane was right in the heart of the CBD and we did some shopping but mostly we were amazed at what a dynamic, thriving downtown it was. The park and gardens at the harbor was full of people; there were guys playing soccer on the grass, a Tai Chi group and families walking around. John watched the pond where huge lizards sat half in the pond and half in the sun while fuzzy baby birds walked quickly across lily pads looking for lunch before the pad sunk under their tiny weight. It was awesome. We could have spent days or a week here easily but instead it was a blissful 24 hours.
Cairns, Australia – You can easily do the best of Cairns in three days. But since we budgeted a week in Cairns we were open to other adventures. We landed in Cairns and Kate spotted a poster for the local NBL (basketball) team, the Cairns Taipans. We jumped at getting playoff tickets for the home game the next night and got into the orange spirit with hair paint and nose bleed tickets. Sadly, the Taipans got blown out by 22 in the first game of 2 out of 3 with the team from Perth.
We had a great first three days at Castaway Backpackers a good walk from the downtown but Wayne and his crew (new owners as of a year or so ago) made our stay fantastic. Kim, from Germany, working there explained that it was pretty common for travelers to get work on the dive and snorkel boat trips for just food and use of the dive equipment; working at the hostel for room and board was a step up. Wayne pointed us to a fantastic trip operator, The Day Tripper ($129 each with lunch, cheese and fruit plate included – note that sting suits that protect you from the jellyfish and the sun is an extra $6 a person, but totally worth it) and took on no more than 20 people per trip. After a few days we hiked in to the downtown where we had a great Air BnB apartment for four days. It gave us time to get some stuff mailed to us (letter from home mailed to Sydney and forwarded and John’s shoes mailed that he had left in Stockton), get haircuts, wander the downtown in search of great gelato (Gelata-safari we called it) go to the Reef casino and eventually go up to Kuranda rainforest village.
But we would have been happy to have been there for just three days in retrospect.
The three things that you must do in Cairns:
- Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef. This was the most amazing snorkeling experience. We took a full day trip. The boat took us 2 1/2 hours off the coast at Cairns. Long ride but totally worth it. The water was crystal clear and green/blue like you see in the postcards. We saw amazing, vibrantly-colored fish. The water was very still and warm and it felt like you were floating in a beautiful warm pool…but as you’d lift your face from the water you would be reminded that there was nothing around for miles and the only thing in view was the boat. 1 1/2 hours in the water flew by. After lunch on the boat we drove to another area of the reef. This spot was also beautiful; the water was warm but it had a current. The afternoon water time wasn’t as relaxing because we were mindful of the current…you had to constantly swim while snorkeling and we always had our eyes on the kids to make sure they could keep up with the current.
- Take the “diamond” (clear bottom) view tram up over the rainforest to the village of Kuranda where you can hold a koala, eat a croc burger and visit the hippie enclave. The Sky Rail takes off just fifteen minutes north of Cairns and it took a few calls to figure out that the “historic train ride” sounded long and packed with tourists – so, we opted for taking the clear floor Sky Rail tram up to Kuranda and the regular car back. There are two stops and we did one going up, where we got to do a rainforest walk with a ranger (which was great) and then do the other stop on the way down. This was a great package…and cheaper than doing the train back from Kuranda to Cairns. We bussed from to the start of the Sky Rail and back at set times. Kuranda is a historic village in the rainforest that was revitalized by hippies in the 1970s. There was an awesome Koala encounter up there. The kids both got to hold Koalas (Kate’s Koala was Charlie, the dad koala, and John’s Koala was Yoshi, Charlie’s son). There were Crocodiles at the encounter. We also got just feet away from Kangaroos…and we saw one with a joey hanging out of her mom’s pouch.
- Enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the living room of Cairns – the Lagoon. It is the best public pool we have ever seen. Judi did some water aeorbics and we all floated in the great water. It is walk in sand on one side and has multiple depths through it, one edge has seats and borders the Esplanade and the harbor and there is a huge grass space that is full of people lying in the sun or enjoying one of the many free BBQ spaces. We spent most of our time in the pool wondering, “now why doesn’t (fill in the blank of a town in Oregon or California) have this sort of thing?”
And before we knew it, it was time to fly to Singapore. Sure, it was nuts to fly all the way back to Melbourne to connect to Singapore but it allowed us to fly Emirates. This is a special treat (assuming that you are like us and First Class flying is well outside your budget) which is simply amazing and beyond what we have ever experienced in airline service. There was two or three times the staff to help you board. The menu came in your seat pocket on a fancy card, the food was awesome, John got a special kids box of prizes and things that were really useful like a sleep mask, we got good wine and beer with the meal, the entertainment system of movies, music videos, classic shows, video games, etc., made us wish the flight would keep going, and the seat space was just a little bigger and nicer in every direction. If you ever have the option – fly Emirates.
And next will come our report from the dynamic little port city / state of Singapore.